Empathetic Leadership: An Imperative in Today’s New Work Environment

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In a recent study bswift commissioned with Forrester Consulting, we surveyed employers and employees on their workplace experiences during the pandemic and needs in a post-pandemic world. When asked about empathy in the workplace, 82% of businesses reported that the pandemic has caused them to take a more empathetic approach to handling employee communications. However, findings from employees reveal they still need more from their employers – 73% said they want their company to take a more empathetic approach to handling communications.*

Here’s a look at why empathy is essential in the workplace, and how leaders in today’s unique work environment can approach employee communication with more empathy.

Why empathy matters

In her book, Dare to Lead, Brené Brown describes true empathy not as simply understanding another’s experience, but in connecting to the emotions that underpin that experience.

Expressing empathy is essential to establishing trust in any relationship. It can help lead to improved communication and understanding, especially within the manager and employee relationship. The absence of empathy can result in a weaker manager-employee connection, which may lead to increased misunderstanding and difficulty aligning on common goals.

For leaders in the workplace, it can be difficult at times to motivate, persuade or challenge your employees unless you know what drives each one. Empathetic managers are better able to pick up on this information, as they are more likely to actively listen and meaningfully engage with their employees.

Leading with empathy in today’s unique work environment

The pandemic has brought a heightened importance to the concept of empathetic leadership. As Maslow’s Hierarchy of Needs outlines, the need for safety is a basic need that must be met for individuals to be productive and achieve their greatest potential. In today’s environment, we cannot expect employees to perform at their highest levels of productivity if they are experiencing increased stress due to the uncertainty of whether they or their loved ones may become ill.

As a leader at bswift, I know that in addition to these baseline safety concerns, my employees are dealing with additional stresses caused by the pandemic such as family or friends who have been hospitalized with the virus; cancelation of travel plans, vacations, weddings, and holiday gatherings; funerals they cannot attend; quarantining; homeschooling and childcare, and financial-related impact.

Having firsthand experience dealing with many of these challenges myself, I try to do the following in my interactions with the employees on my team:

  • Put myself in their shoes: I push myself to look at any situation from the employee’s perspective and consider the range of emotions they may be experiencing. With this mindset, I try to convey that I understand the challenges of this unique time, acknowledge their emotions, and communicate that I want to learn how to best support them during these times.
  • Communicate more frequently: When we moved to a fully remote work environment last year, I updated my one-on-one meetings with each employee from bi-weekly to weekly. The goal of these check-ins is to connect on how each employee is doing emotionally and learn how I can alleviate any unnecessary work-related stress in their lives. Considering the pandemic, I realized these check-ins should take on a more informal and empathetic tone. My priority has been to create a comfortable space for employees to openly share how they and their loved ones are doing during this time and how they are managing stress and multiple priorities.
  • Active and empathetic listening: Active and empathetic listening during this time has helped me understand which employees may be struggling more than others. Asking thoughtful questions while allowing the employee to drive the conversation, ensures my employees truly feel heard and understood.
  • Reiterate work-life balance: For those employees who have had a more challenging time balancing pandemic-related stress with work priorities, I consistently remind them to take PTO. I also provide reassurance that our team always has a plan in place should they need to be out of office.

An empathetic workplace extends to client service

Empathetic leadership can not only improve the manager-employee relationship but can also strengthen your organization’s relationship with its customers. At bswift, we know our clients and channel partners have been experiencing the same challenges and emotions for over a year now, just like everyone else. Taking the time to connect on a more regular basis and ask about their well-being has helped us to establish deeper personal relationships with each client and channel partner. Because the pandemic has impacted everyone personally and professionally in some way, we are able to truly relate and empathize with them.

The pandemic has been a major reminder to not take anything for granted – and this includes your employees in the workplace, clients and partners. Everyone is coping with a unique set of challenges; taking the extra time and effort to communicate empathetically can make more of an impact than we may realize.

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*A commissioned study conducted by Forrester Consulting on behalf of bswift, March 2021

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