Historically, people have tended to evaluate leaders on the basis of hard skills and qualifications. Softer skills like empathy haven't always made the list. But the global pandemic has changed virtually everything, including what we look for in, and need from, our leaders.
We're all going through this pandemic, but we're not all in the same boat. This is impacting people in all different ways, and as leaders we can't overlook that. We need to prioritize empathetic leadership: the ability to put yourself in someone else's shoes and use that as a jumping off point for leading, rallying, and motivating those around you.
We are all leaders -- be it at work or in our families or in our communities -- and how we lead in these challenging times will have a ripple effect. Here are some thoughts on how to approach empathetic leadership:
This may sound obvious, but being empathetic starts with being human. Take the time to check in with people -- how are they handling their physical and mental health? How are their families, their parents, their friends? So often we rush through these questions as small talk at the beginning of a meeting, but make them meaningful. Start by sharing your own updates -- the good, the bad, the vulnerable -- to give others permission to share too.
Being human also means that you recognize team members as holistic individuals, not just as employees. Our colleagues are partners, parents, siblings, friends, and neighbors, and we should embrace that instead of ignore it.
For example, at this point, we've probably all been on a Zoom call where someone's kid (or pet) interrupts. You don't have to ignore that. I have a running "game" with a colleague's son where he'll pop into our calls, say hi, and we'll send each other emojis back and forth. These little things help us connect as people, and not just as co-workers.
Lead with flexibility.
I recently heard someone say that we're not working from home -- we're at home, during a crisis, trying to work. I feel that wholeheartedly.
Typically, a CEO may not be involved in helping employees navigate personal responsibilities. But right now the lines are blurred and we can't ignore that.
I'm encouraging my team to carve out time -- and literally block it on their calendars -- throughout the day to spend time with family, help kids with e-learning, check in on elderly relatives, and, crucially, take time for self-care. We all respect those blocks on one another's calendars, even if it's somewhat "disruptive" to a normal course of business. I myself have been trying to block time to help my son with online learning. We need to be flexible with ourselves and those around us.
Follow that up with transparency, focus, and action.
Amid the endless news cycle and hourly global updates, it's extremely difficult to stay calm and productive. But we need to stay focused to ensure business continuity, and to come out stronger on the other side.
It's important for leaders to underscore the company's focus, be transparent about the challenges the business will face, and bring the entire team together to forge ahead. At my company, even though we're not together in the office every day, we're maintaining the processes that keep us on track in normal times. For example, we still hold our weekly all-hands meetings, and are transparent about the company's health and where we stand with our business and product goals. Transparency builds trust, and the focus on our goals keeps us action-oriented.
At the end of the day, I truly believe that people will step up if they know their work is meaningful. People want to know that, as they're stuck at home, their work and their contribution matters. So if we can relate to people with empathy, and rally around a shared mission and sense of purpose, we'll come out on the other side stronger.