How to Practice Empathy When Leading in a Crisis

Seventy-seven percent of employees say they’re willing to put in more hours when they work for an empathetic workplace culture, according to Business Solver. However, only about 49% of employees describe that their culture is empathetic.

We’re not suggesting that people need to work harder right now. That’s likely already happening. But the data does suggest that when leaders practice empathy, it creates an environment where people take greater ownership. Engagement levels tend to rise when employees are surrounded by empathetic people.

Empathy is not a new topic, but in moments of crises or significant disruption like we’re all experiencing today, the need to demonstrate it soars. We recently asked 300 leaders the question, “What belief do you want held about you after COVID-19 passes?” Over 60% used the word “empathy” in their response. They wanted to be viewed as being empathetic in how they lead during this time. Their instincts are right.


Why Is It Important for Leaders to Practice Empathy?

Empathy effects our ability to adapt and achieve results. It is the capacity to understand what someone else is experiencing. Leaders who practice empathy consider what people in the organization are experiencing through their frame of reference.

When we’re being profoundly impacted personally and professionally, it’s important to check in with people regularly. Asking someone how they’re doing takes on a whole new meaning and dimension during a time of massive disruption. When you take a moment to connect with someone, you create the right experience for employees.

We use a model called The Results Pyramid® to describe this. The model starts with experiences. Our experience lead to beliefs that we hold. Beliefs drive the actions we take. And the actions we take drive the results that we get.

An example of this, my wife came to me a while ago and said, “You’re not listening to me.” In that moment, I couldn’t explain, justify, or say that she was wrong. This was her belief based on an experience I created. I had to own that.  What’s really important is the realization that she’s going to act based on that belief.  The key question now becomes, what belief do I actually want her to hold? If I wanted that belief to change, I had to create new experiences, and not just once but consistently.

Leaders often get stuck in the top two layers of the model, what we call the Action Trap, cycling through action-result-action-result. They tell others how to behave or act without getting to the root of performance: the beliefs that guide actions. People think before they act and they think the way they do for a reason.  People are not just making stuff up.  They’ve had some experience that’s informing their thinking. The question is, do you know the reason people act the way they do?

Leaders who practice empathy go deeper. They’re concerned with the inner world governing employees’ behaviors. Practicing empathy gives leaders greater access to the beliefs that employees hold and the ideas that drive their behaviors. With this understanding, leaders can intentionally create experiences that reinforce or reshape employee beliefs, resulting in different actions, and ultimately, different results.

The Power of Practicing Empathy During Crisis

The leadership skill of practicing empathy is always important, and it becomes critical in times of crisis when people tend to shut down. They might feel disconnected by working remotely, which impacts their wellness and engagement levels. They might feel they’ve lost something and need time to process their grief.

While leaders are rapidly making changes to keep businesses afloat, leaders who practice empathy help employees adapt to a more isolated way of working while processing what the “new normal” means. They are conscious that employees need time to process change and find the path to move forward in a different way. They are also able to neutralize hard feelings that might get in the way of productivity.

The goal of practicing empathy is not to solve problems or even offer comfort. The experience people need from their leaders is to be heard and understood.

Take up residence with your employee’s perspective. People need to be able to reflect to release their anxiety. As you do this, you can identify the root cause of concerns while building trust and higher levels of collaboration.

The more attention you put into your employee’s wellbeing, the more respect and trust they will have for you as a leader. Keep these connections strong right now, which means changing the way you connect with your team and how frequently you communicate.

How to Practice Empathetic Listening

Some people are naturally wired to be empathetic; others have to build this skill and it takes intentionality to do so. For those who struggle with practicing empathy – because it feels warm and fuzzy or it’s intangible – the first step is to make the decision to become intensely curious.

As you do this, reflect on what employees are feeling and what they are saying. Act as a sounding board and listen without judgement or the need to respond.

Once employees discover the root cause of their concerns, they are quicker to address them and find new ways to move towards results. This collaboration sparks innovation that can increase employee engagement and company productivity.

Make sure as a leader you are building time into your schedule to listen to your employees. How do you incorporate empathy into your current work schedule?

Start with meetings:

  • Get intentional about developing an agenda for the meeting.
  • Clearly define needed outcomes for each meeting to improve efficiency.
  • Schedule time in the meeting to ask and listen to what’s really going on.
  • Start by regularly asking your team, “How are you doing right now?” Create the experience that you want to understand their answers to that question.

Even if your schedule is packed with calls and meetings while working from home, make time to connect with our teams for water cooler conversations.

Stay Connected

As leaders, we all move very quickly to respond to what we think is needed; but right now, leaders need to pause. There is a difference in observing what people need rather than perceiving what we think is required. In both professional and personal cases, it’s more important than ever to practice empathy—to act as a sounding board to your employee’s anxieties and understand the perspectives they are projecting.

Practicing empathy allows teams to focus on the “we” instead of the “I,” which can help address the feeling of isolation and disconnection during this social distancing period.

Read more about The Results Pyramid model and how to design experiences at work by downloading the executive summary of Change the Culture, Change the Game.

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