How to Lead with Empathy in the Post-COVID Workplace

Leading with true empathy is more important now than ever before.

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If anything was learned over the last 18 months, it’s that everyone is fighting their own battles. Many personal battles during the pandemic were potentially life-altering- anxiety, mental health issues, financial challenges or mourning the loss of a loved one, we were all struggling in different ways and many of us are still struggling to adapt to a new normal.

Whatever the case may be, as a leader, it’s never been more important to remember your teammates are human beings dealing with often big life changes that could affect their work. Instead of pushing harder and demanding more from an individual whose work may be suffering, adopting an empathetic approach is exceedingly important.

Imagine, for example, that you have an employee that suffers from high levels of anxiety. This individual is a top-performing employee who happens to have a history of anxiety attacks and difficulty processing certain situations. If a problem arises with this individual that needs to be addressed, the best way to do so is by first viewing it from the employee’s perspective. Taking into account who this employee is and how they process and respond to issues will inform you as a leader on how to deal with the situation.

It’s so much more productive to relate to this employee as a unique individual with unique strengths and weaknesses, rather than using a one-size-fits all approach to leadership. That’s the cornerstone of leading with empathy. Understanding your employees as humans and, when needed, relying on grace and empathy to support them. This will undoubtedly result in greater benefits for your workplace longer term than forcing a resolution through a heavy hand.

There are many ways to lead with empathy but when problems arise, the following are some tips for how to manage empathically:

Know your employees
Leading with empathy requires much more than just asking “how are you.” Yes, you should do regular check-ins with your employees, but that’s not enough. Leading with empathy means managing in a way individuals need to be managed for you to harness the most from them. That starts with really knowing your employees – what is going on behind the scenes? Do they have certain triggers that make them shut down? Do they show specific signs of burnout that are unique to them? Speak openly with them about habits you notice and help them identify their triggers so that you can both recognize issues quickly and resolve them in a healthy and impactful way.

Allow a response that they are comfortable with
When things get heated and start to go awry, acknowledge their way of responding, even if it means walking away. Everyone processes things differently and it’s healthy and productive to give employees space to process. If your management style is to address problems head-on, that’s great for some employees, but others may need to retreat, reassess and then respond. And that’s okay, too.

Don’t drop it
You don’t want bad days to turn into bad habits, so you need to hash everything out to make sure everyone is on the same page. Allow space but come back to the issue when everyone has had time to process and cool down. Make time to calmly discuss the situation and steps needed to productively move forward.

As we become more emotionally intelligent and sensitive to individual issues, we have the opportunity to become better humans but leading with empathy also benefits us from a business perspective. As an employer, if I can’t give what my employee needs, they’ll find it somewhere else. There’s a war for talent and companies are pulling out all the stops to entice talent with new mental health benefits and activities. Research also shows that employees are happier and more productive if they feel seen, heard, and empowered by their employers.

Leading with true empathy is hard sometimes. It takes a lot of effort, but the commitment you gain from your team is beyond worth the efforts.

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