Leaders in our current and post COVID reality must focus on cultivating empathy to enable them to engage and support employees. Whether those employees are essential workers or working from home, they have been experiencing change at an unprecedented rate. This has increased stress levels and impacted their ability to be engaged with their own organizations. Our workplaces rely on empathy to facilitate connections and provide forward movement. When empathy is missing, employees become disconnected and less effective, productive and innovative. Empathy is an important skill for leaders to practice, reflect upon and demonstrate in the workplace.
Empathy is the ability to understand and share the feelings of another. Researchers generally define empathy as the ability to sense other people’s emotions, coupled with the ability to imagine what someone else might be thinking or feeling.
There are different types of empathy. Cognitive empathy is being able to put yourself into someone else’s shoes and see their perspective without necessarily engaging with their emotions. This type of empathy occurs more on the thinking or logical level. Cognitive empathy makes us better communicators, because it helps us relay information in a way that best resonates with the other person.
Emotional empathy is when you feel the other person’s emotions alongside them and is also known as as ‘personal distress’ or ‘emotional contagion’. Empathetic people can become overwhelmed and begin to retreat emotionally. Be careful with this type of empathy and do not let it turn into compassion fatigue, taking on other’s experiences and increasing your own stress. Leaders should not forget about their own mental health and take steps to ensure they have the appropriate support so they can support others.
Compassionate empathy takes our understanding of empathy one step further: feeling someone’s pain and taking action to help. Compassionate empathy, is consistent with what we usually understand of compassion, feeling concern for someone, but with an additional move towards action to mitigate the problem. Leaders who listen to ensure employees feel heard and take action to address the concerns will be successful in our current and post COVID workplaces.
Listening happens during open conversations. Conversations in the workplace during this COVID period may have become more impersonal with the shift to a virtual format or with individuals physically distanced in larger rooms. Perhaps this has made it difficult for leaders to connect at a deeper, empathetic level. Employees need that connection more than ever now and post COVID, to be engaged and to know that their leaders care.
Conversations focused on mental wellness and psychological health should be a focus for all leaders. Displaying empathy and gaining knowledge of stress and mental health matters is important. That doesn’t mean that leaders need to be counsellors, but they do need to be comfortable having dialogue around these issues. This could look like sharing their own mental health challenges during this difficult time, reaching out to employees to have the discussion, and leading these conversations with their team or entire workforce. This will ensure that employees know they have the guidance and support to get them through.
“Without empathy it is not possible to get the best from your team, so for this reason it is the key to everything” Satya Nadella, CEO of Microsoft