Empathy helps heal pandemic blues

leadership Apr 15, 2022

One thing for sure has been demonstrated by two years of a global pandemic: truly empathetic leadership is more important now than ever.

It's always been an important skills for those who aspire to lead. But with more and more people experiencing mental health stresses after two years of having their work and home lives turned upside down, empathy as a leadership skill is taking on a new level of meaning.

We always knew demonstrating empathy was positive for people, but new research demonstrates its importance for everything from innovation to retention, according to an article by Tracy Brower in Forbes Magazine. 

How badly has the pandemic affected our mental health, our lives and our performance?

  • Mental health: 67% of people told a survey that their stress levels had gone up, 57% reported increased anxiety, and 54% said they were emotionally exhausted.
  • Personal lives: when we're stressed at work, we tend to sleep badly at home. When we're frustrated by rude emails at work, we tend to take it our on those who are closest to us. Workplace incivility is rising, and working in an unsympathetic and often unkind environment adversely affects our parenting skills.
  • Performance at work: a study published in the Academy of Management Journal found when people are on the receiving end of rudeness at work, their performance suffers and they are less likely to help others. A study at Georgetown University blamed workplace incivility for reduced performance and collaboration, deteriorating customer experiences and increased turnover.

But a genuinely empathic leader can mitigate a lot of these problems. Survey after survey show that staff led by what they perceive as empathetic leaders are more likely to:

  • Be innovative
  • Be engaged in tasks
  • Stay with the company
  • Be better able to juggle the demands of home and work

The Forbes article asks how leaders can demonstrate empathy.

"First, they can consider someone else’s thoughts through cognitive empathy ('If I were in his/her position, what would I be thinking right now?'). 

"Leaders can also focus on a person’s feelings using emotional empathy ('Being in his/her position would make me feel ___'). 

"But leaders will be most successful not just when they personally consider others, but when they express their concerns and inquire about challenges directly, and then listen to employees’ responses."

Tracy Brower says that leaders don’t have to be experts in mental health in order to demonstrate they care and are paying attention. It’s enough to check in, ask questions and take cues from the employee about how much they want to share. 

"Empathy in action is understanding an employee’s struggles and offering to help. It is appreciating a person’s point of view and engaging in a healthy debate that builds to a better solution. It is considering a team member’s perspectives and making a new recommendation that helps achieve greater success."

The article ends by quoting the late great poet and civil rights activist Maya Angelou: "People will forget what you said, people will forget what you did, but people will never forget how you made them feel.”