Finding empathetic leadership in times of COVID-19

Finding empathetic leadership in times of COVID-19

COVID-19, as with any crisis, has exposed some of the very best and the very worst examples of leadership. Unfortunately, there have been some catastrophic blunders, played out very publicly, like EasyJet’s high profile ‘double standards’ request for staff to take eight weeks unpaid leave while it planned a £174m dividend for shareholders. Online fashion retailer ASOS has been accused of “playing Russian roulette with people’s lives” as it refused to enforce social distancing in its warehouses, where up to 4,000 people work.

The long-lasting reputational damage to these and many other organisations and their leaders of such bad judgement and leadership, seemingly as a knee-jerk reaction to unexpected change, should not be underestimated. Very few people relish change. Change is hard and, when it is sudden and comes as a result of something outside of our control, it is hardest of all. The personal and emotional impact of the pandemic on employees cannot be diminished; living with the fear of infection and the anxiety associated with job insecurity, income loss, home-working and for some child care, in addition to the devastation for those who have lost loved ones, places stresses on employees far beyond the norm. A home-based workforce needs more humanistic and flexible policies which allow for illness and caring responsibilities, beyond just measuring their output. This is not the time for a “tough love” leadership approach to get individuals and teams functioning optimally again.

So, COVID-19 has underlined the need for employers not only to have robust continuity plans in place but for them to really focus on employees’ health and wellbeing and to keep them motivated and productive at a time of unprecedented crisis, and this is one of the major challenges across all sectors for the foreseeable future. Only an empathetic organisational culture can keep employees motivated while there is so much uncertainty; data shows that employees who say they feel supported, motivated and energised by their job are more resilient, more ready to reskill, and more excited by the changes ahead. Research from Portland State University shows that social support and understanding are key components for most employees in helping alleviate stress and adjust work-life expectations.

Empathy is defined by Brene Brown as “Listening, holding space, withholding judgment, emotionally connecting, and communicating that incredibly healing message of you’re not alone” and the power of empathetic leadership extends further than an organisation’s employees to its customers and other stakeholders. Recent examples of this have been seen with payment holidays in the personal finance, banking and insurance sectors, and top executive pay cuts and freezes in companies like McDonald’s, Disney, Harley-Davidson and GE, demonstrating compassion and empathy.

There is no doubt in my mind that the organisations that have treated their staff, customers and suppliers with empathy, compassion and understanding during the upheaval of 2020, will emerge from the pandemic with more loyal teams, greater staff engagement and retention and increased customer loyalty. 

Delivering an empathetic and supportive employee experience could be the most important trend of 2020. Research shows that 58 percent of businesses are trying to become more people-centric but only 29 percent of HR leaders currently have a health and wellbeing strategy – with two-thirds of employees globally saying they feel at risk of burnout in the year ahead there’s no doubt in my mind that this will become an urgent priority in maintaining and strengthening teams.

Simon Sinek believes that “empathy – the ability to recognise and share other people’s feelings—is the most important instrument in a leader’s toolbox”. In his book, Leaders Eat Last, Sinek says that great leadership is not about power and privilege but about the willingness to put others’ needs before your own. The complex explanation of this relates to neurochemicals but it is easy to understand that, when things get tough, employees will not rush to support a leader if they’ve never felt that the leader had put their employees’ interests first. Sinek says “You can get a lion to do what you want it to do by whipping it but, at some point, it’s going to come back and bite you”.

Leading with empathy is not an innate ability. Even if an individual has high emotional intelligence, and many people don’t, they may not naturally deploy that in their leadership. Also, the most effective leaders aren’t just empathetic, they also lead by example and become role models of the behaviours they wish to see in their employees. 

So, can empathy and empathetic leadership be taught? The Wall Street Journal notes that roughly one in five organisations provides soft-skill training opportunities for staff to learn the art of leading with empathy.

Based on the evidence I see and read, and putting myself in the shoes of a CEO, my vision for 2021 and beyond would be to recruit a workforce that already had the characteristics of empathetic leadership embedded in each individual, no matter their age or past career experience. But, to achieve this, empathy needs to be taught from a very early age, requiring a step change in education, away from a system that prizes academic examination results alone. However, the pandemic has disrupted recognised examination boards’ assessment models and questions are widely being asked about what is worthwhile learning, alternative methods of assessment are being explored and what could this look like in the future.

I believe that this disruption gives education and industry an opportunity to take a beat and reflect on what type of education is needed to fuel the workforce of tomorrow and to adjust their focus on to the essential leadership skills and attributes, such as those that exist in empathetic leaders and their organisations.

The challenge for all schools is to find the space in an already crowded “assessed curriculum” to teach, promote and develop these essential skills. At VIE Education our schools will follow the International Baccalaureate Career-related Programme (IBCP), its innovative core programme allows us the opportunity to develop and demonstrate a multitude of leadership competences, in addition, all of our students will benefit from the IB’s learner profile, which aims to develop them as ‘Inquirers’, ‘Knowledgeable’, ‘Thinkers’, ‘Communicators’, ‘Principled’, ‘Open-minded’, ‘Caring’, ‘Risk-takers’, ‘Balanced’, ‘Reflective’, all characteristics that are either central to or supportive of developing them as future empathetic leaders.