Why empathy has never been more important for leaders

The world is a scary place right now. No sooner are we cautiously creeping out of a global pandemic than there is war in Europe.

By: James Blair on

So many people suffered a loss of some description at the hands of Covid, and now it’s almost impossible to avoid devastating images and deeply troubling war reports amplified across all forms of media, beamed straight into our living rooms and onto our phones. And then there’s the matter of soaring fuel and food prices…

I don’t mean to be a doom and gloom merchant or add to anyone’s woes or worries. The reason I mention these unmentionables is to point out, as if it were needed, that most of us are wrestling with fears, insecurities or concerns that are new to us and, therefore, not easy to reconcile or ignore.

One thing we should all have learned from the past two-and-a-bit years is that we can’t generalise, and we can’t judge others’ circumstances, experiences, and feelings by our own.

This is particularly true for leaders, who need to consider, and be sensitive and sympathetic to a broad diversity of lived experiences. Some of our colleagues and employees will still be living through or reeling from situations considerably tougher than they were pre-pandemic. And significantly tougher than our own.

Take our professional communications, for example. Before messages are constructed and shared, communicators need to think about what they want the recipients to think, feel and do as a direct result of what they have to say. And, whilst few senior leaders can know the personal situations of their employees, and no leader is going to have the time to tailor or personalise their comms to each colleague, comms that are written and delivered with smaller groups in mind, and that cater to the different needs and circumstances of different populations, can be hugely beneficial in building morale, trust, and respect.

This doesn’t have to be as huge a task as it first sounds. Sending out comms via multiple channels and platforms to allow all employees, regardless of location and shift pattern, to access them in a way and at a time that suits them is a great start. (Our friends over at The Comms Guru can offer a wealth of support and solutions if your comms need a bit of TLC.) Another quick tip is to get leaders to share the spotlight and include content from a broad spectrum of employees from different levels and departments. This can boost engagement significantly and offer a more rounded perspective to our audiences. Video content is also a fantastic way of injecting some warmth and relatability into your communications.

And, back to that focus on empathy, leaders showing humanity, humility, and good humour is to be recommended. This is not the same as showing weakness. Showing vulnerability makes leaders more relatable and can open up more robust and meaningful connections with their people. Always lead with transparency, prioritise engagement and connection, ask how you can support and be accessible.

Another easy way to show a connection with our people is to recognise and appreciate them for their efforts and achievements. Even better, facilitate a peer-to-peer scheme that allows and encourages everyone from the top table down to shout about the good stuff that their colleagues are doing, even in these most challenging of times. And then amplify these, with a commentary from leaders that adds their own recognition and appreciation, showing that we understand just how hard things have been, and continue to be, and that we truly appreciate the loyalty and hard work of our people.

Empathy doesn’t come naturally to all. It is, after all, a personality trait as well as a learned behaviour. If you don’t believe that you are naturally empathetic (or think you have the time to be), then teach yourself to stop what you are doing, and try to put yourself in the shoes of those to whom you are communicating. The more we understand the perspective of others, the better our exchanges will be. And, therefore, the better leaders we will be.