Why empathy is critical in a crisis

‘Empathy is probably the toughest leadership behaviour to learn and deploy, yet it’s the most important’

Why empathy is critical in a crisis

As children go back to school and workers repopulate vacated workplaces, leaders may need to develop a lacking often skill in their arsenal: empathy.

“Now, more than ever, is a great time for leaders to take a crash course in empathy because the pandemic is going nowhere fast and I think that added angst that is going to continue through the fall, second wave or not, is just going to be as compelling as ever for leaders to sort out,” says Dan Pontefract, founder and CEO of culture and engagement consultancy, The Pontefract Group in Victoria.

“If a leader is not able or capable of virtually thinking how employees are thinking and feeling, then they’re even at a worse level than they were prior to the pandemic.”

However, the ability to adopt empathy can’t be created overnight, according to Pontefract.

“Empathy is probably the toughest leadership behaviour to learn and deploy, yet it’s the most important: You immediately have to make yourself equal parts vulnerable and equal parts aware of other people’s plights; it has to be an exercise in selflessness,” he says.

“Empathy requires you to not think about yourself but then say: ‘What are they thinking? What are they feeling? Is there a way I can help?’ which has really nothing to do with you.”

Many employees with children are not feeling supported by their employers during the pandemic, found a recent survey. And HR professionals who are flexible with those workers as the best way to support them, says one expert.

Dan Pontefract

The time of COVID is the right moment to change some bad habits, especially as many workers remain virtual and remote, says Pontefract.

“If pre-pandemic you are a leader who operated behind emails, texts, an office, a laptop, you shut the door, and you weren’t open or inclusive or collaborative or proactive or communicative, now you’ve got the virtual distance that has been thrust upon you due to the pandemic. How do you think that’s going to go if you have to manage or lead through the means of an inbox, a laptop, a desk, an office door? Not so good,” he says.

“What you’ll end up with are highly disengaged employees who might say: ‘I might ride this out for the pandemic, but I’m definitely not hanging out with this company post-pandemic.’”

3 types of empathy

To change these negative behaviours, three types of empathy must be nurtured within corporate leaders, says Pontefract.

Cognitive empathy is “putting your head in someone else’s head to understand how they’re thinking. That might be as a result of their politics, their ethnicity, their sexuality their upbringing, etc. They may think differently than you.”

As well, emotional empathy must be unearthed so that a successful leader can understand how an employee feels about things, which in some cases can be very different from that of the manager, says Pontefract.

Finally, sympathetic empathy comes after people master cognitive and emotional understanding.

“That’s when you understood how they’re thinking, how they’re feeling, and you can do something about it; you sympathize enough to say, ‘Now I get it, I can take some action with this,’” he says.

“The best metaphor I use is, if leaders can remember ‘head, heart and hands’ and that’ll help them see how their team member is thinking, how they’re feeling, and then with the hands, how they might do something with it.”

For HR, it’s important to switch to “offence” to tackle the problem, according to Pontefract.

“I’d like to see not just people and culture CHROs but the entire HR organization, both leading by example but then pushing the organization to see and to believe and to impart the training, the education, the mindset of what an empathic organization can create.”

And the benefits are clear, he says.

“Empathy has so many positive correlations that HR needs to get ahead of it and really mandate — as ironic as that might sound because it sounds very unsympathetic — but you need to get out there and push the cause for how empathy can help that organization reach its goals in the midst of a pandemic, when we’re not too sure either when it’s going to end or what happens post-pandemic.”

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