Empathic Leadership in Unprecedented Times

April 8, 2021

Empathic Leadership in Unprecedented Times

Employees, leaders and agencies face incredible performance pressures during this turbulent time. Conversion to telework and a disconnected workforce in the face of a pandemic, social isolation, racial disparities in the workplace, competing personal priorities, and family health issues all add to the complexity of workplace success. These factors and more, increase stress levels for employees and employers. 

Shifting from Command and Control

Leadership tends to adopt a command-and-control style during a time of crisis. While this may be effective temporarily, it may not be successful in a crisis such as the COVID-19 pandemic. When an agency’s success depends on employees being able to focus, persevere and concentrate, command-and-control leadership simply does not work. It alienates most employees, hampers motivation, and stifles creativity.  

Employees need autonomy, relatedness and competence to perform their best. They need leaders who can create and foster psychologically safe spaces, especially when workers are geographically separated and unable to physically interact. In these situations, peak performance and maximum goal attainment requires leaders to take on the role of an empathic leader.

Benefits of Empathic Leadership

Empathic leaders connect to employees and create an emotional bond that helps them understand employees’ and customers’ changing needs while still maintaining accountability. This in turn allows the agency to be more responsive to stakeholders. Among employees, research has shown that empathy creates a culture of trust, openness and stronger relationships and networks. Similarly, employees who feel they are understood are more likely to be happier and satisfied at work. However, despite the well-established benefits of empathic leadership, some leaders just don’t make the effort.  

“The cognitive costs of empathy could cause people to avoid it, but it may be possible to increase empathy by encouraging people that they can do it well,” according to Daryl Cameron at the Rock Ethics Institute at Pennsylvania State University. In his study, he found that participants were more likely to attempt to empathize if they were told they were skilled at empathy.  

Research on leadership has demonstrated how empathy can be a useful tool in management particularly when individuals are experiencing an organizational change. During times of crisis, employees need to have workplace experiences that support them and provide a level of security and belonging.  Some leaders may not be aware of the added emotional burdens employees carry. Any long-term crisis plan must include empathy as a top priority, and it is important to communicate clearly and with compassion.

Who Is an Empathic Leader? 

The empathic leader is a leader who is attuned to the emotional signals of others. They are able to balance the needs of their employees while maintaining accountability and achieving goals. They identify feelings, seek to understand perspectives, and ask questions to clarify concerns. Because of their focus on empathy, they excel in social intelligence. 

We can expect the empathizing leader to:

  • Anticipate, recognize and meet the needs of those that they lead.
  • Perceive the developmental needs of others and strengthen their abilities.
  • Embrace diversity, and foster unity amongst diverse people.
  • Gauge the social and political currents in an organization.

Listening to others, attending to their needs and wants, and building relationships are the hallmarks of social intelligence and empathic leadership. Leaders can choose to elevate their empathy for greater success, and even for those who claim alternative leadership styles, empathy can be learned and elevated.

A great empathic leader models empathic behavior in the workplace: they demonstrate real curiosity and express a desire to know or understand what employees and customers are experiencing. They have a genuine interest in what others say, think and feel. 

Practice empathy in the workplace with these steps:

  • Accept the information presented.
  • Notice your response and emotional reactions.
  • Refocus yourself to the other person(s) and what is being said.
  • Offer encouragement with questions.
  • Be mindful of assumptions and projections of personal experiences.
  • Ask additional open-ended questions.
  • Listen. 
  • Refrain from jumping to solutions.
  • Repeat what you heard, without interpretation, judgment, or distortion (especially of feelings expressed.)

How to Elevate Your Leadership Empathy

Empathy begins with self-awareness: understanding your own emotions to better understand the feelings of others. This is crucial for communicating effectively and creating a psychologically safe space for others. As a leader, you are expected to bring people together and to support them. Remember, empathy is all about understanding other people’s perspective, valuing them and resonating with their experience. 

Here are a few tips to elevate your own empathy:

  1. Learn to understand your own behavior.
    • Create an empathy journal: 
      • Note opportunities to demonstrate empathy and track your progress. Keep your records safe and confidential.
      • Make a note of exploratory, open-ended (rather than closed, yes or no) questions, and track your follow-up.
  2. Practice empathy in conversation.
    • Notice indicators of underlying concerns not expressed, and possible emotions and feelings experienced by others. Be open, curious and non-judgmental.
    • Practice mindful listening: listen without interrupting, gaze at the other person without staring, and allow a pause before you respond.
    • Create an open dialog with a curious style and tone, rather than appearing defensive.
    • Make time for creative, playful interactions and expression of opinions without judgment.
    • Engage in active listening: confirm you understand what was said and ask for any clarification necessary.
    • Clarify the focus and goals of the conversation to balance it with empathy.

Empathy in the Workplace

Leaders and employees who lack strong empathy skills often misread other people: Seven percent of a message is communicated through words, and the rest is non-verbal cues. Although paying attention to words, facts, and figures is important for analyzing information, focusing only on content can result in miscommunication and misunderstanding. The real message beyond or behind the words can be missed.

We can find opportunities to practice empathy when we become mindful of certain thoughts, or patterns of thinking. For example, when someone raises a question, concern or objection, our internal response might look like: 

  1. “Ugh. This again. I don’t have time for this.” 
  2. “I’ll hear them out, but they better pay attention to me this time.” 
  3. “Why don’t they pay attention to what really matters?”
  4. “I don’t understand the issue here. I must be missing something.”
  5. “What is the real message or concern here? What has not been said and needs to be addressed?”
  6. “I will listen respectfully and accept what is said at face value before responding.”

These responses reflect increasing levels of empathy. The first is self-focused, the second and third are organization-focused, and all three of them lack empathy. The fourth opens the space to allow for empathy, and the fifth reflects an empathic response as it reaches beyond the actual words with genuine curiosity by seeking insight. 

The pandemic has shifted many offices to work-from-home models and many workers feel isolated from their teams and leaders. While not the same as face-to-face interaction, virtual reality technology enables us to connect now more than ever, and empathetic leaders should take advantage of the ample opportunities to communicate compassionately via video conferencing and videotelephony platforms.

Lead from Empathy, Now and in the Future

As we maneuver our way through the COVID-19 pandemic, there will be shifts and changes that occur in leadership styles as the needs of the workforce change. Leaders must adapt their strategies to become the empathic leader, to identify new and emerging needs from their staff, particularly as frustration sets in over time. An empathic leader will be able to perceive shifts and changes and can adjust their approach accordingly. Long-term consequences from the current crisis are inevitable. An empathic leader can plan for these scenarios and prepare for the future to ensure a healthy and productive workforce. 

As we find our way to a new normal, leaders are called to lead from empathy. Empathy as a key leadership strategy will help ensure employees, teams and organizations remain engaged and thrive. 

The findings and conclusions in this report are those of the authors and do not necessarily represent the official position of the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention.

The Authors: 

Cherry A. Collier, Ph.D., is a strategist, executive coach, and diversity, inclusion, & belonging consultant for Personality Matters, Inc. She is the author of more than 25 HR books including Move Out of Your Own Way.

Karen Hacker, MD, MPH, is the Director of CDC’s National Center for Chronic Disease Prevention and Health Promotion. She is an expert in community-based participatory research and wrote Community-Based Participatory Action Research, a widely used academic text.