How to build and express empathy in a world of fear, isolation and confusion

How to build and express empathy in a world of fear, isolation and confusion

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In these turbulent times, it is far easier and less onerous to pull up the emotional draw bridge than to ‘climb into another’s skin’. Yet, for leaders, it remains critical to take on the emotional whirlwinds blowing around us, affirms Margie Warrell, bestselling author & leadership advisor

As the COVID-19 crisis has upended our lives, it’s left millions wrangling with a whole raft of intense emotions.

Fear. Overwhelm. Grief. Anger. Despair. Anxiety. Isolation. Confusion. Shock. Vulnerability. Sadness.

As human beings, we emote before we even reason. So despite an intellectual desire to respond to the challenges at hand with an unshakeable calm, courage and optimism, sometimes fear can hijack our thinking and derail decision making.

It’s why ‘emotional management’ is simultaneously one of the greatest challenges and opportunities of those in leadership roles. Managing their own emotional state while being tuned into the emotional pulse of those in their ranks and elevating their emotional and behavioural responses.

Enter leadership empathy.

Empathy is defined as our ability to put ourselves in the shoes of others – to see as they see, to feel as they feel. Perhaps Atticus Finch said it best in Harper Lee’s To Kill a Mockingbird: “You can never understand someone unless you understand their point of view, climb in that person’s skin, or stand and walk in that person’s shoes.”

Empathetic leaders feel and express genuine concern for others and do what they can to alleviate it.

While empathy is important at all times, in these turbulent times– when fear runs high - empathy is not comfortable work. Far easier and less onerous than to ‘climb into another skin’ is pull up the emotional draw bridge. After all, we have enough going on within ourselves to take on the emotional whirlwinds blowing around us.

Clearly some leaders do just that. They go into their heads - focus on the numbers, the data, the risk mitigation strategy and project execution. All well and good. We need leaders to think rationally, make hard calls and channel their full cognitive horsepower to the most pressing problems.


Leading from the head alone is insufficient. Leaders must also be deeply connected to the emotional landscape of those in their ranks.

Who can not only speak to unspoken concerns and deepest fears, but who can reign them in, fuel their optimism and rally their best and boldest thinking.

Taking care of employees is not mutually exclusive with taking care of the bottom line. Indeed the idea that they are trade-offs is a false dichotomy. They are, in fact, the same side of the one coin. As I’ve found from the last 25 years working with leaders around the world, across many cultural contexts, those who lack empathy not only fail to build trust in good times, but undermine whatever trust exists in turbulent times, all which exacts steep hidden opportunity cost – in lost collaboration, innovation and disengagement – long after the crisis has passed.

We have seen powerful examples of leadership empathy in recent days. Leaders doing away with hierarchical structures that cut them off from the lived experience of those beneath them. Leaders forgoing their salaries to minimise lay-offs and pay wages. Leaders disregarding corporate policies to pay medical costs and fund childcare. Leaders breaking ranks with their own comfort to provide more comfort for others.

Maya Angelou once wrote that “People will long forget what you did or said, but they will always remember how you made them feel.” Empathy is a fundamental skill for leadership because it gets to the heart of what leadership is truly about – making people feel truly valued; not just for what they do, but for who they are. Decision makers who are able to connect with people at the heart level, not just from the head, foster psychological safety, unlock ingenuity, build trust unleash the tremendous power of the ‘rally effect’ in the midst of crisis.

If you are in a leadership role, here are four ways you can do just that.

Talk to people… and truly listen to what they say.

Yes, very simple, but so rarely done. Right now, this means picking up the phone or setting up video call and actually asking people how they are doing and then listening beyond what is being said for the truth to that answer. If their response is ‘just fine’, probe a little deeper: ‘What are your biggest challenges right now?’ It’s the leaders role to ensure people feel safe to share what’s really on their minds and that includes providing upward feedback without any fear of being penalised for doing so.

Share your experience… challenges included.

The best leaders are those we can connect to on a human level. Sharing personal anecdotes from your own life of what you’re dealing with and how you’re managing yourself can help build rapport and make you more relatable. Had a bad night sleep? Your kids driving you a little nuts? Your partner says you talk too loud on calls? Missing your daily espresso from your daily barista? Your mother worried you’re working too hard or are you worried about her?

Sure sometimes the personal can be trivial in the scheme of the crisis at hand. Share it anyway. Add in some humor. Humanise yourself. The most personal is always the most general.

Foster shared purpose… rally people behind a human-centred mission

Every person ever born wants to feel that what they do matters. And when we’re feeling pain and forced to make sacrifices, we want to know it’s not in vain but for a higher good. Empathetic leaders know this and they speak to this need in a way that helps people get on board with whatever is being asked, transcending the normal silos and divides, and pulling together in the same direction toward a purpose far greater than themselves. What lays at stake here? Get crystal clear about why what you’re trying to achieve matters at a human level, not just a commercial one.

Role model self-care… prioritise personal wellbeing

In the darkest days of the Second World War, Winston Churchill would take an afternoon nap. Some scoffed at this practice yet by prioritising his own energy management, it enabled him to bring his best thinking to the greatest crisis of his time.

Likewise, your ability to bring your best energy and sharpest thinking to navigating through this crisis will require prioritising what strengthens you - body, mind and spirit.

Doing so sends a clear message to employees to follow suite. The combination of losing regular workday routines and working remotely at home (often in less than ideal circumstances) can take a toll on wellbeing, fuel isolation and anxiety. Your example of blocking time in your schedule for self-care will send a loud message: prioritise what sets you up to play your A-game under pressure.

Foster connection and nurture belonging

Working from home is not only personally challenging for many employees, but it shifts the cultural context within teams and organisations. Use a diverse array of digital tools and communication mediums to foster a sense of connectedness and belonging across all levels in your organisation. Create virtual happy hours, book clubs, set up a Slack channel solely for comical content that adds some laughter to serious days, online yoga sessions and meet-ups. Casually "drop in” to a few to say hello, see how everyone’s doing or make a little fun of yourself. Actions will speak far more loudly than any words when it comes to communicating how much you care.

Instil optimism… from the inside out

Optimists weather tough times better and emerge from them better off. Helping people maintain optimism that better days lay ahead can help lift flagging spirits and steel their resolve to ‘keep faith and press on’ on the hardest days. Of course, this requires leading yourself first – keeping your own fears in check and anchoring yourself to the values that you want to embody as a leader – courage, optimism, compassion, integrity, purpose. Research finds that leaders who operate with self-certainty provide a psychological safety net for those around them in times of uncertainty.

In the end, an organisation is not more than the sum of its people.The more people feel cared for, the more they care.

Honing empathy skills through listening, perspective taking, and compassion not only leads to better outcomes in the midst of crises, but fosters a “culture of courage” that elevates an organisation's trajectory well into the future.

Margie Warrell is a best-selling author, leadership speaker, facilitator and consultant. She draws on her background in Fortune 500 business, psychology and diverse global experience to support senior leaders and HR specialists to improve decision making and unlock potential to improve commercial success, collaboration and wellbeing.

Margie will be hosting a webinar on Human Resources Online’s newly-launched portal on 14 May 2020 on the topic: Knowing someone with COVID-19 and remaining resilient throughout. We invite you to join us for this inspiring story told from the first-hand experience of brave wife, Margie, whose husband had been diagnosed with COVID-19.

For more details, contact us here.

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