Maya Angelou once said, “I think we all have empathy, we may not have enough courage to display it.” Today’s world demands empathy, especially from leaders. Yet many executives default to a so-called brave face—attempting to have all the answers rather than humbly choosing to be empathetic.
Why is empathy and vulnerability so difficult for leaders? Perhaps it is because Western culture has spent nearly 100 years subscribing to the notion that employees should leave their personal life at the door. Today there is no door, and we are inviting each other into our homes. Everything we knew about how we “should” work is being redefined.
For better or worse, we are participating in the biggest work-from-home experiment ever. Gallup data from the end of April indicates that the number of U.S. employees who have worked from home in the past seven days (63%) has doubled in just three weeks. Sadly, as we all know, this experiment is not by choice. For most people, this is a time of unprecedented worry and uncertainty.
Every Experience is Unique
People around the world are concerned about volatile stock markets, record unemployment, and their health. Being physically separated from co-workers is leaving many feeling lonely and without social support when they need it most. While we are all in this together, it’s important to recognize that no two people are having the same social-distancing experience.
Here at RingCentral, we have colleagues working from home with seven school-aged children, while many are facing this crisis completely alone. Others face unique challenges like caring for special needs family members or unstable internet connections. For some employees, sheltering-in-place may be dangerous as domestic violence is increasing during the pandemic. The one thing they all have in common is that they are stressed out and craving connected, empathetic leadership, as leaders we need to offer empathy and support that as tailored to individual needs.
Research proves that emotions are contagious, using empathy and confidence can keep anxiety from derailing your teams and organization.
What is Empathetic Leadership?
Empathy in the workplace is not about taking on the emotions of your team, instead, it’s considering their feelings, connecting with them through vulnerability while assuring them that you are on top of the situation and capable of making good decisions that will benefit them and the business.
Often, empathy cannot be effectively demonstrated in emails (recipients often find messages lack empathy) or large town hall meetings; it’s best-accomplished one-on-one. Meet with your people, and make sure your leaders are doing the same so that face-to-face discussions cascade through the organization. I block time on my calendar each week for “impromptu” video calls.
Empathic Leadership in Practice
When connecting with my team, I start by acknowledging some of my own personal challenges. I am keenly aware of the impact a prolonged lockdown might have on my daughter. I’m concerned about the wellbeing of doctors and nurses in harm’s way. I miss spending time with groups of friends, attending concerts, and live sporting events with fans. Some days the walls are closing in. By sharing my feelings transparently, I encourage my team to open up. This creates an opportunity for me to learn how to best support my team members as individuals. The most important thing I do? I listen.
The Benefits of Empathy
The COVID-19 pandemic has shown us the importance of empathetic leadership. Due to their leadership styles and ability to make tough decisions while demonstrating compassion, female leaders in Germany, New Zealand, and Taiwan — among other countries — are hailed as role models by global media. These leaders have minimized deaths in their countries by imposing restrictions without antagonizing their populace–a stark contrast with the approach and results of non-empathetic leaders.
These successful leaders don’t pretend to have all the answers–instead, they assure their people that they are on top of the facts and working with other leaders to make the best decisions. Their empathy and humility inspire confidence.
People respond to empathy, but does it benefit the business? Yes
Nurturing empathy benefits the bottom line by increasing sales, productivity, innovation, and competitive advantage. Individual benefits of empathetic leadership show up in performance reviews. The Center for Creative surveyed 6,731 managers in 38 countries. According to the survey, managers who demonstrated empathy received higher performance evaluations by their supervisors than managers without empathy.
Empathy and Engagement
Employees take cues from leaders, by being empathetic and vulnerable (while still conveying “we’ll-get-through-this-together” positivity) you create an open and honest environment where teams feel engaged. In the end, everyone benefits, employees, managers, executives, customers, and shareholders.
After starting with a Maya Angelou quote, let me conclude with another gem from her – “I have learned that people will forget what you said, people will forget what you did, but people will never forget how you made them feel.” I think about that as I consider my legacy. I want people to feel I treated them with respect, compassion, and above all, empathy.
Need more ideas on managing remote teams during these unprecedented times? We created the RingCentral Work From Home Resource Center to help.
Originally published May 28, 2020, updated Jan 30, 2023