How to Promote a Culture of Caring and Compassionate Leadership

Empathy and compassion are generally considered founding principles within the whole area of Emotional Intelligence and Psychological Safety, which are redefining the approach to leadership that de-emphasises technical skills and amplifies the so-called “soft skills.”

Alex Vincent, Ph.D., SVP, Global Teams Solutions
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Your employees have been working at home for months, wrestling with wonky VPNs and navigating crowded home offices and bored children. While some have thrived in the new world of virtual work, others have struggled. With the pandemic still crippling the global economy and social justice protests shaking the foundation of our society, uncertainty is the order of the day.

In an environment like that, it’s not unusual for leaders to feel somewhat confounded about how to treat the people they lead. How do you keep your people motivated, engaged and focus on the business strategy while also acknowledging that many of them will be suffering under the strain of these current challenges?

Increasingly, those involved in forging the next generation of leadership development believe that skills like empathy and compassion are the keys to connecting to, and motivating, employees in troubled times.

Empathy and compassion are generally considered founding principles within the whole area of Emotional Intelligence and Psychological Safety, which are redefining the approach to leadership that de-emphasises technical skills and amplifies the so-called “soft skills.” It expands the role of leader to act more like a coach and sounding board. Although those are simple concepts, they represent daunting new demands on leaders.

That expansion of the role and responsibilities of leaders is more important now than ever because of the impact of multiple disruptors in work along with the threat from COVID-19 global pandemic, the accompanying economic lockdown and the powerful nature of the Black Lives Matter movement. All the changes and disruption is starting to take an enormous toll on everyone’s resilience and even mental health.

Data is emerging from jurisdictions around the world on declining mental health. In the United States, the non-partisan Kaiser Family Foundation has been tracking the mental health of Americans throughout the COVID-19 pandemic. The most recent data shows that more than 45 percent of Americans report that their mental health has suffered during the pandemic. The situation is more severe for those who were forced to shelter in place.

In Europe, public health officials have been sounding the alarm for months about a building mental health and substance crisis that is accompanying the pandemic. Dr. Hans Kluge, director of the European branch of the World Health Organization, reported first in March his concerns about pandemic-related mental health challenges.

“Physical distancing and isolation measures, the closure of schools and workplaces are particularly challenging [for] us,” Dr. Kluge said. “It is absolutely natural for each of us to feel stress, anxiety, fear and loneliness during this time.”

It’s all related to what mental health professionals are now referring to as “deaths of despair,” fatalities caused by stressful economic or social conditions that drive higher incidences of drug and alcohol abuse, which may lead to suicide and overdose. “We may be in for a perfect storm of factors driving substance abuse rates higher than we have seen before,” Dr. Lloyd Sederer, former chief medical officer for New York State Office of Mental Health, wrote recently in Medscape Magazine. “The triple trouble of a pandemic, unemployment, and diminished personal and community supports.”

In this context, leaders need to be aware that every time they pick up the phone or assemble everyone for a team meeting on a video conferencing platform, they are tapping into growing reservoirs of stress and anxiety that at some level, must be acknowledged with empathy and compassion.

Some schools of leadership development thought—particularly those built on philosophies such as “positive psychology”—believe leaders need to avoid dwelling on the negatives and amplify the positives. And while that can be effective for motivating some employees—particularly those who are more resilient and less impacted by all of the disruptions—many of your team members may need an approach that will require empathy and compassion. This is really to develop a safe space for individuals to discuss what they are dealing with, professionally and personally, and how they are feeling about their situation. This will require deep listening combined with the ability to suspend judgment and refraining from providing advice.

Before emphasising the positive aspects of our current situation, leaders need to demonstrate that they understand what stressed or worried employees are going through, and that it’s not unusual that they feel that way. 

It’s important to remember that mental health is still a deeply stigmatised topic in most workplaces. Prior to the pandemic, it was hard for most employees to admit that they were facing a mental health challenge. Research in this area has re-enforced the fear that even acknowledging depression or anxiety will undermine their career brand and limit their future opportunities.

For those employees who have been most affected by the multiple crises we’re facing, leaders must be able to communicate genuine empathy about their concerns, and compassion rather than judgment. There needs to be a sense that it’s okay to talk openly about fears and anxieties, while also acknowledging that others are going through the same situation.

Lamentably, empathy and compassion are skills that evade many leaders today. Most leaders have risen through the ranks of their organizations by demonstrating a grasp of technical knowledge. Rarely, if ever, are they assessed on whether they can relate to their employees on an emotional level. That is why so many leadership development experts are promoting the principles of Emotional Intelligence as the new standard for successful leaders.

Skills like empathy and compassion can be developed in most leaders but they can present as much larger challenges to leaders who have traditionally been satisfied to be judged on deliverables or meeting financial targets. 

Enhancing a leader’s capacity to cultivate empathy and compassion is an iterative process that must be approached over time. The following steps are essential in cultivating these important emotional skills:

Take stock. All leaders must be carefully assessed to determine current levels and potential for empathy and compassion. Every organisation will have naturally empathetic and compassionate leaders. But there will also be leaders for whom these skills do not come naturally. Identify the size of your E&C gap.

Study up. Most progressive business leaders know that they must be constantly learning and improving themselves. Reading books on emotional intelligence, resilience and empathy-based leadership approaches can provide an essential base of knowledge on how to integrate E&C into daily leadership practices. 

Don’t go it alone. One of the most effective ways at building soft leadership skills is working with a coach who has experience in these areas. Coaching will not only help leaders confront their own shortcomings, but it can accelerate and help sustain the cultivation of empathy and compassion.

Leadership is still a role that requires toughness and resilience. Leaders must set high expectations for the people they lead and be willing to call out underperformance when necessary. But they must also know when someone needs understanding, care and support.

It may seem like a simple solution, but sometimes people need to know that it’s OK to feel whatever they’re feeling right now before they can start to feel good about the future.

 
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