Becoming A Great Virtual Leader At The Convergence of Empathy & Sympathy

This article is authored by Joshua Konkle, Chief of Staff and Operations Leader, in collaboration with LeadersWord.

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This article is authored by Joshua Konkle, Chief of Staff and Operations Leader, in collaboration with LeadersWord.

We live in a new normal. At a time when organizations, as well as individuals, are unsure of what life will be like post-COVID-19, one thing is certain: remote work is here to stay. According to a 2020 Gallup poll, 72% of office workers said that they would prefer to work remotely at least two days a week, and one-third said they would like to work from home in perpetuity. 

This has several implications, one of them being that leaders will need to learn how to lead their teams, or at least parts of their teams, virtually. This will involve leading people placed across different time zones and different environments with lesser first-hand information and insights into their well-being. 

In short, organizations will need leaders with a keen sense of empathy. 

Why is empathy more important than ever? 

Empathy is the ability to sense, understand and relate to another individual’s emotions, somatic expressions, neurodivergence, ethnicity, and culture experiences. It involves you putting yourself in someone’s shoes and looking at the world through their eyes. For leaders, empathy translates into understanding their team members’ unique opportunities and giving them the right tools, guidance and value needed to elevate them. 

The craving for more empathy at work isn’t new. Even before the pandemic, 77% of workers said that they would be willing to work more hours at a more empathetic workplace while 60% of employees surveyed said that they would actually accept a reduced compensation in return for more empathy at work. 92% of HR professionals also noted that a compassionate workplace is a huge factor behind reduced employee attrition and increased retention. According to Harvard Business Review, businesses that prioritize empathy and emotional intelligence also outperform other businesses by up to 20%. 

With a non-empathetic leader, team members are more likely to keep their guard up and protect individual self-interests. This could lead to situations where employees are wary of elevating ideas, issues, or problems to their leadership. Leadership could learn of their unhappiness or dissatisfaction only when they are walking out of the door.

Empathy is a leadership skill that helps you build trust with the people around you, it gives you insights into how people think and feel, and helps drive informed decision-making that leverages intuition. Empathy skills are needed more than ever in an increasingly virtual world, where leaders often do not have somatic indicators such as body language and facial expressions to draw upon as indicators of their employees’ well being. 

To lead successfully in an increasingly virtual world, leaders need to inoculate themselves with the following skills: 

Train Your Attention On What Matters:

The modern world is full of distractions. Before working from home became the norm, most employees were struggling to complete tasks and would often work early in the morning or late at night to find some time to complete their more involved projects.

As a leader, this situation can exist for you as well considering the multiple tasks that demand your attention. However, you will need to focus your attention to be present for the people you lead. Remember, the people are your most important resource, and as such they should feature high on your list of priorities. 

When you are not in the present for your employees, you allow past mistakes and fear of the future to influence how you feel and respond to the moment, which doesn’t help your employees. You want to be able to respond to what is happening at the moment, and coach them through their difficulties. Be focused, be present and be available for your people and you will find them growing and improving others around them. 

The Art of Listening Defines A Good Leader:

When you learn how to train your attention, you can begin to practice active listening, as opposed to passive listening. 

Active listening is the art of comprehension. It is when you focus completely on what someone speaking to you is saying without a constant mental voice that is focused on coming up with two words you can say for every word they are saying. Active listening does not require you to acknowledge the speaker every few sentences they speak.

As a leader, you have many demands on your attention. Make sure all your listening is active. Passive listening keeps you from reading the essence of communication, and creates miscommunication. Missing essence and miscommunication will destroy team members’ confidence in you. 

Practicing active listening will allow you to make your employees feel heard, seen, and valued, besides helping you understand what your direct reports need. The number of signals available to you as a leader are already lesser in number in a virtual environment, voice is one of the most important signals of the few that remain. 

Make sure you are actively listening while on your calls, and not typing away emails, slacks, texts, signals, or doing something else in the background. 

Make the Time to Build Trust:

Just because you are the leader doesn’t mean that your employees automatically have to trust you so when you skip trust-building, the work environment doesn’t feel safe. Mistrust breeds in the shadows.

A safe work environment is when leaders consider it okay for their people to make mistakes and fail, and in fact encourage a fail-fast and learn philosophy. 

Empathetic leaders talk about their missteps openly and use them as a way to help their team learn and grow, while also lending a sympathetic ear to their reports and coaching them to correct their mistakes without judgement.

An important way to build trust is making everyone aware of the company’s long-term and short-term goals. You don’t have to tell everything to everyone but, if you aren’t open about the direction of the company and what your plans are for the next 6 months or years, it will create an environment of uncertainty.

Virtually, it would translate into frequently checking in to ensure that everyone is on the same page about what they need to do while also making sure they have the resources needed to make it happen. 

Let Your Words & Actions Be Intentional:

Being intentional means taking thoughtful, purposeful action. An intentional leader takes time to think about what they are going to say or do. When we manifest an intention, we are actually thinking a few steps ahead and considering the impact our actions may or may not have on another person.

In a virtual work environment, if you are struggling to communicate something in an instant message, or email, stop and think for a minute about the ways your message can be misinterpreted. This is the time to pick up a phone or get on a Zoom call so the other person can hear your voice or tone. And the same goes from any messages you may receive from your peers or team members. 

People can sound more negative than they are when they write things down in a message. Remember, there is a huge difference between “You just have to make the deadline” vs. “I understand where you’re coming from. It’ll be tough to meet that deadline but let’s talk about how we can all support each other.” 

Let your conversations reflect and reinforce your belief in your team. 

Empathy requires you to be vulnerable, humble, and human which, at times, may feel like contradicting your role as a leader. 

However, being a leader requires us to show empathy and sympathy with the people we lead. Empathy allows us to understand our people and place them in positions where they grow and improve others, while sympathy will allow them to place their trust in you and give their best to the positions you place them in. I recommend that leaders enrol team members in the GIVES model. 

Grow oneself and Improve others while we Value diversity and Experience new cultures to create a Stretch mindset.

It is quite a mouthful, but implemented correctly the GIVES model will help you and your team experience the magic of empathy and sympathy.

This article is authored by Joshua Konkle, Chief of Staff and Operations Leader, in collaboration with LeadersWord.

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