In the business world, we have short-term memories. We look at 2020 like it was ten years ago. But in reality, we’ve had to deal with a global pandemic, moving most employees to remote positions and learning an unexpected new skill: connecting with employees you’ve never met in person.
Companies have taken the fast lane to a world dominated by remote technology, which means business leaders must make a more concerted effort to be “human.” Covid had a personal dimension that affected people in different ways. The uncertainty of disease transmission and the need to move into the unknown was daunting. People were scared, confused, hungry for information and unsure how the pandemic would interfere with their lives.
No one had the answers, of course, but lending a sympathetic ear and tackling these challenges together somehow made the world a little safer and more manageable. Responsive leaders were able to share the latest news, knowledge and information provided by public health officials, but nothing seemed as effective as sitting down with employees and listening to their fears and concerns.
Empathy is one of the most important traits a business leader must develop, and it always leads to a happier, more motivated workforce, which in turn leads to a successful business. And will be prosperous. Here are three lessons of empathy that can help you navigate your business:
1. Don’t stop asking: People don’t care what you know until they know how much you care. So, everything I do is based on listening. Active listening is an acquired trait and a departure from what we typically rely on for success when starting out in the business world. To effectively lead in today’s increasingly complex environment, leaders must gain a deep understanding of the personal and professional issues facing their employees. Empathy will be a necessary and necessary skill for the next generation of leaders. Leaders who set the tone for empathy and establish practices that support psychological safety will be better positioned to deal with the challenges of today’s workforce.
For example, I consider it important to understand the individual positions and challenges my team members face personally and professionally. I try to create a safe space for team members to share with me the most important things in their lives. Everyone has a personal struggle or milestone. My group alone includes people who are dealing with the challenges of aging parents, or difficulty finding affordable housing or childcare, or an emotional transition in their lives.
While I would refrain from advising on any of these situations, it is worth checking as a precaution. Giving my team members a few moments of empathy gives them a certain level of comfort and they are grateful for the opportunity. To share their emotional well-being and current situations. I truly care about them, and a moment of empathy allows me to instill deep trust within the team. Trust, of course, is the cornerstone of a successful team, which translates into extraordinary retention and engagement.
2. Ask the right questions — think about: Questions are often hallmarks of effective leadership, but they must be meaningful. During interviews with employees, I am most interested in the stories they want to tell. It is not just a series of “umhu” for answers. They would share with me and I would respond, “Tell me more” or “How does this affect your life?” More than a technique, it should be a genuine passion—because even if it’s not the most important call of your day, it might be the most important call of their day. Remember, it’s better to be curious than curious.
3. Set boundaries to expand your emotional bandwidth: Giving compassionately all the time is nearly impossible. Spreading yourself too thin limits the support you can provide your employees. You need to make sure that you control the time and energy you spend. Whenever I feel my energy waning, I take a few minutes to myself for a walk or listen to music. Once I recharge and set up a 30-minute meeting with an employee, I make sure to stick to the allotted 30 minutes – depending on their time and mine. People are more likely to invest in relationships where boundaries are respected.
Self-compassion is key to having enough emotional bandwidth to share with employees. Equally important is knowing the limitations and preferences of your employees. It is critical to understand that no two employees are the same, so providing empathic leadership cannot be a formula. Sympathy for one employee may be completely different for another. It is also important not to force employees to share; Give them a safe place to share if they want to.
For example, I have a team member who initiates every conversation with me. It usually only lasts five minutes, but it’s important that this person shares this with me. Conversely, another team member rarely shares personal or professional struggles, but when those moments do occur, the conversation is much longer, deeper, and richer.
The personal connections that empathic and vulnerable leaders create with their teams provide many organizational benefits, including increased loyalty, engagement and retention. This leads to increased innovation and productivity, while protecting against employee burnout.
The best part of being a leader is making real connections with your team, so don’t miss out on these opportunities. People are remembered not so much for their empathy as for their intelligence. Be an enthusiast in other people’s lives. When you compassionately help someone else on their journey, don’t hold back.
Scott Nostaja is the national organizational performance practice leader and senior vice president at Segal, an HR and benefits consulting firm.
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