Leading in Times of Crisis: The Call for Compassionate, Courageous Leadership

These past few months have taken an emotional and psychological toll requiring greater empathy and support from leaders than ever warranted in the past. To inspire and mobilize our people in these increasingly challenging times, we must seek to understand our employees’ perspectives and show genuine care and respect for their feelings. What team members need right now are leaders with the compassion and courage to lead from the head and heart, empathetic leaders who can create the psychological safety necessary to work through unspoken concerns and open a dialogue that reins in employee fears, promotes optimism, and rallies their people’s best thinking to forge ahead.

Empathy is the capacity to understand the emotions and perspectives of others. Truly empathizing, or “feeling with people,” can be difficult because it requires us to connect with something inside of ourselves that “knows the feeling” described by another. Empathetic leaders make the vulnerable choice to tap into their own emotions to understand and authentically engage with their people. They ask questions, listen, and validate where their team members are and what they need—and they respond in a meaningful way to help them move forward.

While a “soft” skill, numerous studies draw a hard connection between empathetic leadership and increased levels of loyalty, engagement, and performance. Trust and relationships deepen when employees feel heard, understood and supported, leading to greater collaboration, innovation and productivity—especially in times of crisis. While empathy comes naturally to some, others need to cultivate this essential leadership skill.

Becoming an empathetic leader requires:

    • Actively listening with care and focus, holding time and space for all that needs to be shared
    • Looking beyond your point of view to consider the perspectives of others
    • Recognizing and accepting others’ feelings
    • Assuming positive intent and refraining from judgment
    • Modeling self-awareness and vulnerability, openly acknowledging and voicing personal feelings and needs with clarity and compassion
    • Frequently checking in with employees, meeting individuals where they are emotionally, and offering encouragement

Unsure of where to begin? Start by asking questions, demonstrating patience, curiosity, and a willingness to listen with an open mind. The desire and capacity to truly listen with intent are what set empathetic leaders apart.

Practicing Active Listening:

    • Focus only on what the other person is saying—not on what you are going to say next
    • Be fully present, avoiding distractions and multitasking
    • Observe nonverbal cues (facial expressions and body language) and control your own so as not to inadvertently send the wrong message—especially in today’s remote work environment, use video conferencing to connect whenever possible
    • Validate understanding by asking clarifying questions and summarizing what was heard

The scale and complexity of our crisis landscape will continue to pressure-test leaders and organizational cultures. While the disruption and uncertainty forced upon us by the coronavirus pandemic and the consequences of recent tragic events cannot be changed, we do have a choice in how we respond. Seizing everyday opportunities to practice empathy and lead employees forward with humanity will position us all to emerge from this shared experience stronger than before.

Do you have a solid understanding of where your team members are emotionally and what they need from you today? Do you regularly check in to listen, offer encouragement, and provide the support to help them move forward? Are you honest, transparent, and caring in your communications?

We recently volunteered our time to host a series of Leading in Times of Crisis workshops to support our executive network in navigating the uncertainty and change brought about by the coronavirus pandemic. This is the second in a sequence of articles derived from the workshop offering change expertise and resources to help equip leaders at all levels to lead their people through this crisis successfully. See our initial article on three success metrics leaders must work to balance now.

DCG’s purpose—and promise—has always been to help leaders lead change, and it drives us now more than ever to support our colleagues, clients, partners, and friends in managing through the impacts of COVID-19. Our team is with you on this journey, and we are here to help.

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