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At a time when people need EMPATHY from their bosses, are they getting it?

This past month has certainly been unusual. The advent of a worldwide pandemic has had businesses scrambling to figure out how work will continue, or even if it can continue. At the heart of all this confusion are people. Real people are struggling with real issues, many of them bigger than work.

This is tough. Managers are tasked with business continuity even as their reports are juggling work with kids home from school, spouses who are also trying to work in the same space, loneliness and a feeling of isolation from their teams, and, sadly for some, family members who are ill and can’t even be visited. There is a lot of stress out there right now, and managers are adding to it.

At a time when people really need EMPATHY from their bosses, are they getting it?

In my upcoming book, It’s Not Them, It’s You, I point out that Empathy is one of seven key leadership traits managers must possess. This is a soft skill which really isn’t soft at all. In fact, this is definitely a Power Skill. More than any other, at a time like this, empathy is something employees need so badly, and appreciate so much when its given. Here is an excerpt from the book which talks about the importance of empathy:

When you take the time to understand others, they will feel more inclined to share with you, and maybe even trust you. Certainly, they will feel more like they are partnering in the team’s success with you.

The demands to stay in place and practice social distancing mean that employees all over the world have had to figure out a new way to work. For some this has been easy. Their workplaces have allowed people to work remotely for some time. For many others, this involves a new approach and incorporates new technology. Leaders must understand their power as a role model for behaviour. Leaders guide others throughout organizations in how to think, feel, and act when something like this pandemic happens simply through how they behave. They need to be patient and provide support for their team members as they learn how to work in a new way.

As part of normal business practice, managers should be holding regular and consistent one on one conversations with their team members. This holds true, and may be even more important now, when people are working remotely. Connecting with team members on a regular cadence sends a message that their manager still considers them in planning and decision making. In other words, it sends a message to team members that they matter.

When managers take the time to develop a relationship, through one on one conversations with their team members, they are far more likely to feel empathy when something like this pandemic happens. After all, they know this person not just as a worker, but as a human. Further, if they’ve taken the time to learn what makes their team member tick—what drives them to do great work and spurs on their productivity—then it’ll be hard for them to imagine that same productive team member not putting in their all when working from home.

Sure, there’s an element of trust involved. However, people are known to rise to the occasion in times of challenge. Why should we expect any different now?

A friend said the other day “I wish I had bought shares in Zoom”. No kidding! Video-conferencing technology has provided us with a very effective way to keep in touch that goes beyond voice. It’s not quite as good as being face-to-face. However, it does provide the benefit of seeing expression and body language while maintaining social distance. Checking in daily with team members via Zoom, Google Hangout, or whichever other tool you have available is a great idea. Use the same tools for one on one conversations to feel better connected to the individuals on your team. There is no reason for personal connection to cease just because you’re not working in the same shared space.

Try incorporating these empathy-building tips into your conversations:

  • Listen, really listen, to what your team members have to say. It is by listening that you learn about your employees—what makes them engaged and what keeps them up at night. You’ll learn how important their work is and, in the process, you’ll come to trust they have the best intentions at heart. In listening you’ll also find clues to help you support them in the ways they need.

  • Be cognisant of your attitude. Do you have an open mind? Are you ready to listen?

  • Be cognisant of your body language as well. Do you look as if you’re interested? Are you focused on them or checking your phone or email as they speak? Lack of attention can be seen on video-conferencing, just as it can in person. In fact, you can hear it in the speaker’s voice, even without the benefit of video (yes, you really can).

  • Pay attention to what they say, to their tone of voice, to their body language, and even to what they're not saying. Your people will provide the clues you need to support them and to help them through challenging times. Many people think they’re listening, but what they’re actually doing is waiting for their chance to speak and give advice. That’s not listening. Take in all they’re telling you and consider it carefully... then reply.

  • If you can’t determine, with all that listening, what the team member wants and needs, why not ask? Ensure your expression and tone of voice convey your empathy. Have them explain their position. This approach is simple, direct and can be very effective.

With all the change happening and about to happen, employees will, more than ever, need the support of their managers, and that will take strong communication, coaching and mentoring skills, and empathy.

If you wonder how you can better connect with your team members, reach out to me. I am happy to offer ideas, support and, of course, empathy.

You can reach me at

(cover image courtesy of freepik)

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