Community//

The Importance of Leading With Empathy in Crisis

COVID-19 has devastated the lives of people around the world, and has thrown business leaders new challenges on how to build sustainable businesses during crisis. Many organizations are having to adapt the way they work, or unfortunately shut down entirely. In either case, it presents a unique and unprecedented challenge for leaders, who must make tough decisions for their business and the wellbeing of their employees. Forescout’s Julie Cullivan shares her experiences as CIO and Chief People Officer through this time and how she’s choosing empathy as her guiding force.

What’s the biggest change you’ve made to your leadership style since the outbreak began?

I’ve always been a huge proponent of communication, but I found in the last few weeks that it has been more important than ever. There is a lot of uncertainty with everything going on in the world and I feel communication is one tool that provides clarity and a little peace of mind. It includes laying out what steps we’re taking to protect employee well-being, what news and guidance we’re following and adopting, and how we’re thinking about this as a leadership team every day. The more clearly and broadly we can communicate these things, the better.

But I also recognize that we need to deliver these messages in a different way than before. People are frightened and a little empathy and kindness can go a long way. When I sit down to write emails or create videos updates to send to our teams, I take extra time to consider what difficulties people are facing today and how our latest update could affect them. The result is I spend more time communicating why decisions are being made, or even just offering advice to help them cope. I hope it’s made an impact on making our employees feel supported during this time.  

Do you find it challenging to get empathy across when your teams are remote? What advice do you have for leaders to convey this authentically?

First and foremost, you have to be genuine. Employees can tell when you’re faking it.  Authenticity is the most important thing.

Then, try testing out new formats that allow you to convey that empathy more clearly. For instance, instead of sending emails I’ve been recording video updates for our teams that let them see my face and non-verbal communication. I keep it real and tell stories of how I’m struggling too – as well as delivering the information they need on HR or IT-related topics. I’ve encouraged other leaders at our company to do the same in order to cascade empathy and understanding throughout our teams around the world. Many are trying new things like weekly (or even daily) All Hands to check in, virtual Happy Hours, or even just updates on team successes from the week.

How do you balance empathy and understanding with the need to run a business and ensure everything gets done on time?

Like any company – and especially with tech companies like us – we are used to moving fast. But during these exceptional times we also have to consider that it’s harder for employees to focus on work because everyone is juggling multiple jobs right now: work, home schooling, and taking care of loved ones. 

One thing that has helped our teams is reminding them of why we’re doing what we’re doing. It can feel incredibly isolating during these times, but remembering the mission of the company – which helps protect front-line organizations like hospitals from cyberattacks – can band us all together. I’m sure many other companies can find a similar guiding light. I know when I sit down at my desk to work that mission helps me focus and I hope it helps our employees too.

What are some of your own personal struggles about working through this crisis? 

I’m a people person, so it’s definitely tough for me to not be in the office and working with my teams face-to-face. I’m also a “do-er” and pride myself on being super productive and driving towards deadlines. That’s harder to do in these times, which is definitely a challenge for me. And, for those the accomplishments we do make, there is no one to directly celebrate with and give a high five. 

That said, there is something special about being isolated with my family. Having some time to hit pause has not only allowed me to appreciate these little moments more, but also has allowed me to reflect and refocus myself on my long-term personal and professional goals. I hope many of our employees are doing the same. 

What lessons have you learned that you will incorporate into your leadership style going forward?

There’s a lot of things that I’ve learned during this time that I won’t forget. First, I think it’s clearer than ever that communication is super important to the functioning of a business. I’ve been communicating more than ever with our teams and I plan to keep that up. Second, I’ve realized the value that video has in helping a global business. I’ve loved seeing the faces of my teammates around the world – as well as meet their pets and children – in these last few weeks. 

Finally, I think as leaders we often get so caught up in the day to day mechanisms of running a business. This crisis has opened all of our eyes to the need to lead with more empathy. We’re talking more about our struggles than ever before – both work-related and personal – and getting through it together as a team while showcasing our human side. That is a is a very special silver lining that I hope continues for months and years to come. 

    The Thrive Global Community welcomes voices from many spheres. We publish pieces written by outside contributors with a wide range of opinions, which don’t necessarily reflect our own. Learn more or join us as a community member!
    Share your comments below. Please read our commenting guidelines before posting. If you have a concern about a comment, report it here.

    You might also like...

    Community//

    Why We Are Facing an Empathy Deficit

    by Michael Brenner
    Tsyhun/ Shutterstock
    Thriving in the New Normal//

    The Importance of Culture When Working From Home

    by Jesper Andersen
    Community//

    SysAid CEO Sarah Lahav: “Let’s start a movement to teach children empathy”

    by Yitzi Weiner

    Sign up for the Thrive Global newsletter

    Will be used in accordance with our privacy policy.

    Thrive Global
    People look for retreats for themselves, in the country, by the coast, or in the hills . . . There is nowhere that a person can find a more peaceful and trouble-free retreat than in his own mind. . . . So constantly give yourself this retreat, and renew yourself.

    - MARCUS AURELIUS

    We use cookies on our site to give you the best experience possible. By continuing to browse the site, you agree to this use. For more information on how we use cookies, see our Privacy Policy.