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How to Be an Empathetic Manager During Difficult Times

January 25, 2021
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Nance L Schick, lawyer, mediator, and founder of Third Ear Conflict Resolution, knew the pandemic had changed things when some of her long-term clients — the ones who had been the most skeptical about her empathy-driven approach to conflict resolution — started requesting it. Schick attributed this to the stresses of working during COVID causing some employers rethink the way they interact with their employees. “We realized we don’t know how to balance the rules and regulations with the human perspective,” she said.

There have always been times when life — whether it be an illness, accident, family emergency, or world events — gets in the way of an employee’s work. But in a communal crisis like the COVID-19 pandemic, the idea that everyone could simply power through difficulty and resume business as usual has been shattered.

“The pandemic and a sudden switch to remote work forced managers to develop their leadership skills in areas they hadn't considered before,” said Susan Norton, Senior Director of Human Resources at job search resource website LiveCareer. “Successful leaders know the right time to motivate their employees and push them beyond their comfort zones. However, in recent months, a manager's role has also been to listen and show empathy during difficult times.” 

Abbey Louie
, a leadership trainer and consultant specializing in management and teams, said bringing understanding and compassion into the workplace goes beyond wanting to extend basic kindness (though that’s important, too); these qualities are actually essential for businesses that want to make the most of their human capital. 

“Our brains don’t view our workplaces as an economic transaction. First and foremost, we view it as a social system,” explained Louie. “And if people don’t think they are being cared for, that the decisions being made are fair and unbiased, they are not capable of bringing their best ideas. Managers have the power to make work an enjoyable, motivating experience or a really miserable one. And if we want the best from [our employees], we have to value them and treat them as a whole person.”

Managing and Supporting Employees in Need

It’s not always easy to know how to put that empathy for an employee’s difficulties into practice when there are real business needs to meet — and there’s no one-size-fits-all formula, either. But experts said there are some best practices that can help.

1. Don’t make assumptions.

When an employee is struggling, both employee and manager can tend to jump into worst-case-scenario panic, worrying that a person dealing with a family emergency is going to drop the ball on a critical upcoming presentation, or that a supervisor working with kids at home won’t have the time they need to devote to their direct reports. But Joanna Massey, PhD, President and CEO of public relations and communications firm JDMA Inc., recommended staying calm.

“First, ask your employee about the problem. Do not assume and do not launch into a lecture,” Massey advised. “Second, relate to your employee — whatever they say about their situation, there is likely an aspect to which you can relate. Relating to others puts them at ease with you.

Giving a struggling employee a safe place to share what they’re struggling with and how they’re planning to manage it is a first step to understanding what’s really going on — and making a proactive plan to stay on top of it.

2. Listen closely. 

Schick said that listening closely to your employees’ difficulties and concerns — even sometimes to what they aren’t saying — can yield important insights. “Listen for the things they’re having difficulty expressing and need help with — what I call ‘the hurts you can heal,’” said Schick. Going into the conversation thinking, “What is something I can do to give them a quick win?” can invite them to respond to you in the same empathetic way, she said.

3. Empower employees to be involved in the process.

Allowing employees to play a role in determining what any next steps may be empowers them during what can be a disempowering time, and also invests them the outcome, Massey noted. Whether it’s reassessing goals after a quarter where a caregiver’s sales productivity took a hit, or adjusting expectations for how far along a certain project is, “offer [people] options so they can make a decision for themselves,” she recommended. “Even if none of the options are ideal, providing people with an opportunity to make a decision about their own situation restores their sense of autonomy and agency over their own life.” 

4. Know when to seek additional outside help.

An important part of being a leader is knowing what your limitations are — and knowing when empathy alone isn’t enough. “If someone is having psychological problems — what looks like depression, substance use, or severe anxiety — it’s okay to listen, but don’t play therapist — there are people who studied for many years to do that job well,” cautioned John Austin, PhD, Director and founder of safety, management, and leadership consultancy Reaching Results. “Instead, refer the employee to Human Resources or ask HR to reach out to them and connect them anonymously with professional [mental health] services.”

Building an Empathetic Culture

While responding empathetically to employees in need in the moment is important, experts said that building a company culture that prioritizes empathy can help strengthen the firm as a whole. Here’s what they suggest. 

1. Establish clear expectations.

Establishing a baseline of clarity on expectations and goals is not only a best practice for productivity, it makes being empathetic when things don’t go according to plan easier, too, Louie said.

“[Have] a foundation [of] clear, objective, measurable goals,” she stressed. Goals are then reinforced by regular meetings where both parties can review progress and talk about any challenges.

“It’s good to formally bring out the goals and ask, ‘Are these still right and achievable?’” Louie said. Sometimes, she noted, managers want to be so empathic and understanding that they overcompensate, and do a disservice to their employees by not holding them a high enough standard and making too many exceptions.

“The first step in [achieving] that sweet spot of balancing expectations and empathy is having a fair and clear foundation,” she said.

2. Be collaborative. 

Inviting employees to be active participants in setting their goals helps invest them in their work — and makes them proactive partners moving forward, even when things get off track.

“Rather than impose expectations from the outset — ‘Here is what I expect from you in 2021’ — managers can co-author agreements with their employees, like, ’Here is what we want to create as a team or business this year, and here is how I envision you playing an important role in this. Are you committed to these goals?’” advised Chris Rollins, executive leadership and Human Resources coach and founder of Chris Rollins Coaching. “From there, you can have an [authentic] conversation about commitment, possibility, [things that] might get in the way, and doubts that [could] come up.”

That way, when issues arise — whether it's an illness that requires time away, a personal emergency that's sapping their focus, or anything else — there's a shared commitment to what's critical that can help both managers and employees come up with a workable solution. 

3. Practice empathy all the time — not just during a crisis. 

Putting empathy into practice in the workplace doesn’t just mean springing into action when things go wrong — it means helping employees thrive day in and day out.

“While there is of course a place in empathetic leadership for acknowledging where expectations and workload might be too high for employees, the other side is also finding areas where expectations and workload might not be high enough,” pointed out Dawson Whitfield, CEO and founder of AI-powered logo creator Looka. Managers that are able to put themselves in their employees’ shoes can find ways to leverage those team members’ talents and skills to best effect for both them and their employer.

“Effective empathetic leadership is also about seeing the areas of greatest potential and passion for employees and directing their work toward those areas,” Whitfield said. “Seeing an employee's job from their perspective allows you to create a role where they want to work harder, because they are genuinely engaged with their work.”

The challenges of 2020 gave managers — and the world at large — a crash course in just how much we need empathy, compassion, and understanding. But even as workplaces start to move into a post-pandemic mode, experts said they expect to see some of the lessons learned stick around.

“I think this experience over the last year has inspired more leaders to embrace even more empathy, and that’s a beautiful thing to observe,” Louie said. And not just because it’s a virtue, she added. It’s an advantage. ”Empathy is what allows us to adapt and still be successful.”