Why Trust and Empathy Are Key Ingredients of Leadership

They were important before the pandemic, but now they’re essential.

Rido / Shutterstock
Rido / Shutterstock

The present moment — and foreseeable future — poses a unique challenge for leaders. Every employee is going through something. Parents are juggling work demands, family responsibilities, and remote schooling. Many have faced some kind of personal or financial loss. Even those fortunate to be employed are facing increased mental health challenges due to COVID-related stress and job insecurity.

If leaders are going to inspire and motivate their people to pursue a common purpose and find meaning in their work, they need to support their people at the intersection of work and life, where many of these tensions exist. Offering that support might mean stretching out of comfort zones — for leaders and employees alike — but even small efforts can yield big results for individuals, teams, and organizations. A strong sense of trust in one’s team and leadership predicts significant increases in key business metrics, including 33% in engagement and retention likelihood, according to the Thrive XM Index, a research report that measures the connections between employee experience, performance, and organizational resilience. Additionally, workplace connections — including perceived trust in company leadership and a sense of belonging — are the top predictor of employees’ likelihood to advocate for the company and recommend it to others.

To build and sustain this trust, managers need to lead with empathy — that is, being able to identify with what individuals on their team are feeling or experiencing. These traits have always been key ingredients of effective leadership, but in the current environment they have taken on new importance and urgency.

Communicating with care

For managers, empathy is a key driver of job performance, according to a study by the research firm DDI, yet only 40 percent of business leaders display strong empathy skills. 

Fortunately, our ability to empathize is not set in stone; research shows it is a skill that can be developed. And for leaders hungry for results, especially in challenging times like these, driving those results begins with taking a genuine interest in other people.

“There’s a direct connection between results and relationships,” says Terrence Seamon, an executive career transition consultant at The Ayers Group who has decades of experience coaching leaders through change. And just as we need to work for positive results, we need to work at our relationships.

According to Seamon, the bulk of that work is done through communication. Now more than ever, he says, leaders need to hone a communication style that focuses on what people are really experiencing day to day. That means communicating openly, honestly, and frequently, and asking how people are doing outside of work. It also means knowing that not everyone prefers and responds to the same communication style — and asking each individual on your team what works best for them. Some may want more regular check-ins than others, for instance, or may prefer phone calls over video calls.

Deepening connections

Leaders can start by taking this moment to deepen their relationship with their employees, inviting others to see them not only as a boss, but as a human being.

“A leader has to be very real,” Seamon says. By sharing their own questions, concerns, and challenges with team members in team meetings or one-on-ones, leaders can demonstrate traits like authenticity and vulnerability that fuel genuine connection. When this happens, he says, “People on the team realize, ‘Wow, my boss and I are in this together.’”

Establishing these connections means tapping into another key quality these times demand: humility. 

“Even though a leader might have an M.B.A., they need to recognize they don’t have all the answers,” Seamon says. That recognition makes it possible for leaders to listen to their teams, be more open, and empathize — in ways that can build trust and motivate people to bring their best selves to their work, even in difficult times.

When leaders take these steps to present themselves as human and invite collaboration, it can unleash energy across teams. When Google conducted an internal study to determine what made for the most effective workplace team, it found people whose opinions are valued and who are listened to are more productive, innovative, and display increases in cognitive performance.

Prioritize your own well-being

Before leaders can put themselves in others’ shoes, they first have to be healthy and present. Christine Andrukonis, the founder of Notion Consulting and an expert in helping leaders change behavior, cites the example of flight attendants who instruct passengers to secure their own oxygen mask first, even before assisting a child.

This seemingly counterintuitive step can be a small one; neuroscience shows that we can course-correct from stress in just 60 to 90 seconds. Andrukonis’s suggestions include a few minutes of yoga or exercise each morning, or stepping away from work each afternoon for a short walk or a cup of tea. 

Instead of thinking of these habits as taking away from their work, leaders need to consider taking small steps to fuel their own well-being an essential part of effective leadership. As Andrukonis has found, many executive teams who were already on ambitious paths before the pandemic are now “drowning” as they have moved into crisis management mode.

“They’re just not taking care of themselves, and they’re burning themselves out.” 

Make things tangible

As the pandemic has changed the way we work and live, many leaders have responded with ambitious visions for the future.

“Every organization right now is talking about ‘reimagining our workplace,’” Andrukonis says. “But what does that actually mean?”

The leader’s task, she says, is to move from the abstract to the tangible. Leaders have an opportunity to offer up big visions, but must also bring them down to earth to help employees understand how they will be affected. 

Andrukonis recommends sharing concrete timelines. For example, “Next week, this is going to happen,” or “By the end of the first quarter of 2021, this is what things could look like.” 

Leaders need to challenge themselves — and delegate to their direct reports — to make things more tangible and operational at a time when there’s a risk of being gauzy and ambiguous. This creates opportunities to build trust by showing they are accountable — put simply, that they do what they say they’re going to do.

For employees who are passionate about being part of a way of working that is healthier, most sustainable, and more inclusive, this can be incredibly motivating. It creates an “in it together” spirit that invites people on a shared journey that is all the more meaningful because of the external challenges. And when employees feel seen and supported by their leaders along the way, they are far more likely to follow them into challenging situations, Andrukonis says.

“If people trust you, they’re more likely to want to take risks with you and try things and learn from their mistakes,” she says.

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