Being a leader during a crisis is hard, especially when the crisis is a worldwide pandemic. It’s difficult to balance supporting your employees and empathizing with the different struggles they’re going through, while also making sure the team stays on track and delivers results. Here are six tips for leading with empathy during a crisis, while still managing to demand results from your employees:
1. Lean into empathy first.
Start every leadership communication, big or small, by empathizing with the other person(s) and asking human-to-human how they are doing. Explain that you also have a family and — if appropriate — share how you’re coping. Communicate that we’re all in this together and that your thoughts are with your employees and their loved ones who are suffering or anxious. Next comes pragmatism, and setting the tone that important work must go on. Discuss work progress, plans and priorities. Always wrap up discussions and meetings with a message of optimism — e.g., ‘We are resourceful and we will get through this.’ Remind people that this is a temporary crisis (months, not years) and there’s light at the end of the tunnel.
2. Set the standard, be a role model.
Leaders need to be out front and hosting daily morning virtual check-ins with their team and direct reports. Starting each day with a two-way conversation gives impetus to the work day ahead, keeps remote workers motivated, resets priorities during the rapidly evolving crisis, and offers a systematic way of holding two-way communications. Team members should be encouraged to do the same with each of their teams in a cascading effect. This keeps information flowing and signals that there’s an expectation of work during the working day. This structured approach will help employees feel more connected and motivated because they’ll feel that someone is paying attention and that their work effort really matters. Make sure that your remote meetings are effective and efficient. For example, send the agenda ahead of time, don’t have too many people on the call, and keep meetings professional and focused.
3. Be realistic and reset performance expectations.
It’s a mistake to think that it’s business as usual for employees working from home. Employee stress and burnout should be a concern as workers grapple with the healthcare implications of COVID-19 on loved ones, and their requirement to work from home while other members of the family have to be home-schooled and their partner is also working from home. My advice is for employers to alleviate an already pressurized situation and reset employee performance expectations. Establish a new expectation that 60 percent work rate is good enough, and 80 percent is great. No one should be expected to be superhuman and deliver the same 100 percent rate of output during the anxiety of a global pandemic and country lockdown. Don’t see this as a lowering of standards. Instead see it as a realistic and appropriate compromise between employer and employee during what’s a very heightened stress period.
4. Establish an ‘open door’ policy to hear employee feedback.
Leaders should communicate that they have a virtual ‘open office door’ policy and are willing to take calls as and when people would like to get in touch during the work day. Remote working is a communication barrier, and leaders need to find creative ways to dismantle this barrier so that it doesn’t get in the way of work performance. Rather than ignore the reality of the challenges of staying connected during the COVID-19 crisis, you should acknowledge it and actively encourage people to get in touch with you to provide feedback on what’s working well and not well.
The alternative to proactively reaching out is not an attractive outcome. Employees may become demotivated, disengaged or burnout because their boss or employer didn’t properly empathize with the reality of remote working in the extraordinary pressure of a global pandemic. This phase is temporary, and you want your employees to return from this experience even more appreciative of their boss and employer.
5. Be emotionally intelligent.
Good leaders should be able to use their emotional intelligence to tune into the emotional mood and health of the organization, and then respond accordingly.
Treat your employees like grown-ups. There’s no hiding in a crisis like COVID-19. Share available facts. Be transparent. Bring people on the journey. Explain the challenges, and what you’re doing to address them. Build a mutual appreciation of the efforts involved. In times of crisis, people look to leaders for answers. They will appreciate transparency. Now is not the time for leaders to hole up in central HQ and only disseminate information on a need-to-know basis. Don’t cancel any scheduled communications. If there’s nothing to say, just say that and remind people what work is taking place. Use the time to be encouraging and raise morale.
6. Have empathy for yourself, too.
Although people are looking to their leaders for all the answers, remember you’re just a human too. Remember to have empathy for yourself and put in the support systems you need to function. Take care of yourself as well as taking care of your people.