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Empower with Empathy: Building a People-First Culture

Leading with empathy will be the most important management skill in 2022. As we emerge out of the pandemic and move to a hybrid workplace, expectations for leaders have fundamentally changed.

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Posted On May 16, 2023 

Being a leader is hard work but being a leader through a global pandemic is exponentially harder.  In fact, in The Adecco Group’s 2021 study across 25 countries and close to 15,000 knowledge workers, nearly half of managers (46%) indicated managing people through the pandemic was difficult which can be attributed to the virtual delivery of people management, such as onboarding, development, and performance management, coupled with identifying and addressing employee mental health and burnout issues that intensified through the pandemic.

No leadership framework could have completely prepared us for the challenges that ensued. While traditional leadership models flag the need for leaders to be ahead of their teams in adopting change, the pandemic turned this on its head.  Leaders were navigating through change while trying to support their teams, with the ground constantly shifting beneath them.  At a time when employees needed the most attention, leaders were firefighting, managing crises, and focused on sustaining their departments and organizations. Employees, in turn, were faced with mounting workload and demands, the blurring of work-home boundaries, a lost sense of control and a deteriorated sense of connection with leaders and colleagues, all while absorbing changes -- professionally, societally and personally. 

Perception is reality

While there is variance in terms of individuals’ resilience, everyone has a finite capacity for dealing with change, and we are quickly discovering that employees have used up their reserves. Interestingly, while 80 per cent of senior leaders in the Adecco Group study were satisfied with their performance through the pandemic, satisfaction lessens at progressively lower levels in organizations: 62 per cent of front-line leaders were satisfied with senior leaders’ performance, and only 43 per cent of non-managers were satisfied. 

Differences in satisfaction could be attributable to a gap between the intent and actual impact of leader; employees’ lack of visibility into what leaders were facing; using different measures of performance (leaders focused on “we got through this” versus employees focused on “I feel supported”); or relying on old leadership approaches that no longer apply.  Regardless of reasons, perception is reality., and 63 per cent of employees surveyed do not feel that leaders were nurturing a good work culture. These are sobering findings, given that a good culture is the glue that binds, a pre-requisite for motivation, and a key to performance over the longer term. Leadership is the lever.

Establishing a people-centric approach

As we emerge out of the pandemic, and move to a hybrid workplace, expectations for leaders have fundamentally changed. Old paradigms need to be replaced by leadership behaviours that authentically telegraph caring, empathy, and appreciation. The four C’s can be leveraged to build an empathetic, people-first culture.

Curiosity: Beginning from a place of humility, leaders need to become proficient at maintaining a curious mindset, seek to understand individuals’ challenges, and leverage curiosity to tackle uncomfortable conversations around diversity and different lived experiences. The concept of arms’ length relationships is dated: it is not about keeping the personal out of it, it is expressly about bringing the personal in, to allow for meeting the widest swath of needs in a flexible way. A curious mindset seeks to learn from and leverage differences for maximum impact. At a minimum, this involves one-on-one meetings aimed at connecting at a deeper level, creating a safe space for discussion, forging relationships and laying the foundation for trust.

Connect: In a work from the office model, a certain amount of information (and disinformation) was picked up through casual conversation.  In a remote environment, it became too easy to become disconnected. In a hybrid environment, it will be critical to ensure that those working remotely and those working in the office have access to the same information and attention and are equally connected.  Every leader will need to find the right cadence of meetings for multi-directional communication, but the frequency needs to be amplified in the new world of work to create a sense of belonging and psychological safety.

Control:  Stress is most activated when people feel they have no control. In the new world of work, leaders will benefit from providing their teams with greater ability to control how and when they get the work done, maximizing flexibility and focusing more on outcomes. Control also comes through communication; by providing line of sight to decisions, context and rationale, changes feel less disjointed and are easier to absorb.

Courage: Trust is earned by being a truth teller.. It involves taking an authentic and straightforward approach avoiding platitudes, fully sharing what is known, and transparently sharing when you simply do not know. Trust is built when words and actions are aligned.

The next normal of leadership hinges on creating a culture of empathy, through consistent and authentic behaviours that embrace the 4 C’s.

This article was originally published on Talent Canada.