Leading with Empathy in a Virtual World

To lead your teams through uncertain times we need to EVOLVE.

Leading with Empathy in a Virtual WorldAs we continue to navigate the challenges presented by COVID-19, we know that work and the nature of work will never be the same. We are currently going through a period of change in the way we work, live and interact with one another. 2020 will be a hard line in history, which we’ll think of in terms of “before” and “after.”

If you manage a team or lead an organization, how do you continue to create conditions that maximize employee engagement and foster a positive and inclusive workplace culture? 

During the past decade, Google set out to determine what makes a high performing team. Through their extensive research, they found that how team members interact, structure their work and view their contributions was more important than who was on their team.

As we work to establish effective workplaces in our “new normal,” I believe the five key characteristics of effective teams that Google identified in their research and shares on their Re:Work website offer a guide for managers today and in the future:

  1. Psychological safety: Can we take risks on this team without feeling insecure or embarrassed?
  2. Dependability: Can we count on each other to do high-quality work on time?
  3. Structure and clarity: Are goals, roles and execution plans on our team clear?
  4. Meaning of work: Are we working on something that is personally important for each of us?
  5. Impact of work: Do we fundamentally believe that the work we’re doing matters?

Psychological safety is a term coined by Amy Edmondson, Harvard Business School researcher, to describe “people’s perceptions of the consequences of taking interpersonal risks in a particular context such as a workplace.” A workplace or team where employees feel psychologically safe simply means they are able to show and employ their complete selves at work without fear of negative consequences to their self-images, statuses or careers. At the core of psychological safety is empathy. Empathetic leaders are in tune with all of the unique situations transpiring in people’s work AND personal lives. The current global pandemic has erased the hard line between those two arenas.

Historically, most leaders and managers have never been trained to demonstrate, let alone embrace, this critical leadership trait. There has been a push to create boundaries between an individual’s personal and professional life. However, in today’s uncertain and stressful environment, it’s more important than ever to tap into your empathy and compassion skills in order to survive and thrive in this crisis with your team intact.

Author and speaker Lisa Earle McLeod recently called empathy “an absolute superpower” in a crisis. She noted that this time is a defining moment, where people (your employees, future employees and your customers) will remember how leaders behaved. And they will remember it for years to come.

Empathy, McLeod says, is demonstrating to your team, “I see you, and I stand with you.”

Empathy is not a PR strategy or something you can “put on” inauthentically, however. It requires tapping into the authentic desire to understand another’s experience, which is at the heart of inclusion culture. The key to genuine empathy is to EVOLVE.

Leading with Empathy

As we rely on technology to bring teams together, leaders can lead their team using the EVOLVE framework of intentions and actions to demonstrate what empathy looks like in your daily interactions.

E – Explore. Explore your hidden and unconscious biases. This directly links to a statement each of us is making more frequently now, “We’ve never done it like that before.” This means embracing risk-taking. We are all living in unprecedented times and must be open to solutions, and new ways of doing things that support our people and teams.

– Value the Person. And do it genuinely! Managers and meeting leaders need to ask a simple question to open every meeting, “How are you doing today?” People are hurting. They may have sick parents or friends or for many, they are home-schooling for the first time. Give everyone a chance to answer and be heard. Make time to foster individual connections.

O – Open-Minded. Stay open-minded to what your team is saying. Choose not to dismiss different points of view because they’re not what you’re used to hearing. Use a strategy like Kristen Pressner’s Flip it to Test It to shine a light on the unrecognized ways you think about the way work is done, how we interact with different groups of people and how we break old paradigms.

L – Listen. Listen not just to the words but also to the feelings and emotions behind the words. Managing our teams virtually challenges managers to dig deeper to create engagement with all our associates.

– Validate. Restate what you believe you’ve heard and what you believe the person is feeling. Working virtually means we may not see the non-verbal communication taking place and it is easy to misinterpret the intended meaning. You may be off-base, so don’t assume. Seek to understand by saying, “If I hear you correctly…” followed by “Is that right?” If it is, you can proceed.

E – Engage. Engagement is the “I stand with you” part of the equation. You are asking permission to move forward.

One note: You don’t have to have all of the answers. Don’t assume that you’ll need to provide solutions or remove every obstacle for your team. Some people will just need an opportunity to vent so they can get it off their chests and move on. And by listening — genuinely listening — you are providing comfort and demonstrating leadership.

Empathy is the number one leadership skill needed for managers today … and in the future

EVOLVE provides a framework for authentically showing empathetic leadership at work. As the poet Maya Angelou wisely said, “At the end of the day people won’t remember what you said or did, they will remember how you made them feel.” When we emerge from this crisis, make sure people remember that you made them feel valued and included as providing critical support for your company’s success and bottom line.

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Jeffery Tobias Halter is president of YWomen, a strategic consulting company focused on engaging men in women’s leadership advancement. Founder of the Father of Daughter Initiative, creator of the Gender Conversation QuickStarters Newsletter and the Male Advocacy Profile, Jeffery is a former director of diversity strategy for The Coca-Cola Company and is the author of two books, WHY WOMEN, The Leadership Imperative to Advancing Women and Engaging Men and Selling to Men, Selling to Women.