Leading with empathy during the pandemic

Empathy comes more easily to some people than it does to others. Leadership experts share ways you can develop this key trait.
 Leading with empathy during the pandemic

As workers navigate new personal and professional challenges brought on by the coronavirus pandemic, experts say it’s more important than ever for managers to lead with empathy.

Empathy, the practice of seeing things from someone else’s perspective, comes more naturally to some people than others.

“It’s hard to change the way we’re hardwired, especially if we’ve been rewarded all of our lives for behaving as we do,” said Jill Geisler, media and leadership professor at Loyola University Chicago and author of the book Work Happy: What Great Bosses Know.

Everyone can take steps to improve their ability to show empathy, according to Geisler and Jackie Fitzgerald, FCMA, CGMA, a professional coach and owner of Alquimia Coaching & Development in the UK.

In a survey released this month from global staffing firm Robert Half, 34% of US workers said they feel more burned out at work than they did a year ago. Many said the fatigue came from an increased workload. In a separate Robert Half survey in September, 88% of senior managers said they worried about losing their most talented workers.

Having an empathetic boss can go a long way in helping employees feel more secure and appreciated. Here are some ways to become more empathetic.

Be self-aware

Geisler said three factors affect empathy: the way we were raised, our religious beliefs, and whether we are “hardwired” as thinkers or feelers.

“Feelers start by thinking how individuals on the team will react to a situation,” she said. “Feelers are the first ones to sense who might feel upset or left out. They value harmony, so they worry about that, sometimes to a fault. “Thinkers start by thinking of the team, its goals, and what helps them achieve them. They are less focused on individual responses and overall harmony and less apt to sense ups and downs of morale.”

Both styles are important, Geisler said, “so we can fill each other’s gaps”.

It’s crucial for leaders to self-assess to get a better understanding of themselves when it comes to showing empathy, Geisler said

Leaders should also talk to their staff, as becoming more empathetic requires feedback.

“I call it the million-dollar question: Is there anything you need more of or less of from me?” Geisler said. Workers might say they want more time with their manager or more resources, or less micromanaging.

Really listen

It’s not enough to simply set aside time to talk to employees, Fitzgerald said. “Quite often we don’t listen, really listen, to what other people are telling us, because we’re thinking about what’s next on our agenda or what we’re going to say next.”

Fitzgerald said leaders should also pay attention to people’s nonverbal cues — their body language, tone of voice, facial expression, and “how emotional they appear”.

An employee might agree to take on a new task, but with slumped shoulders and a frown, Fitzgerald said. “So an empathetic person would ask about that, whereas someone who is more task-focused would take the ‘Yeah sure, I’ll do that’ at face value.”

While it can be difficult to read those cues in a face-to-face setting, remote work can make it even harder, as conversations take place on Zoom or via email.

Put yourself in other people’s shoes

Geisler said research has shown the more power someone has, the more easily that person can lose empathy.

Lower-level workers know their success depends on saying and doing the right thing. But, Geisler said, “As you become more powerful, you don’t have to pay as much attention to what the other person needs.”

During the pandemic, many employees are still adjusting to remote work and might be juggling their children’s virtual learning. On top of that, they might be mourning the death of loved ones or caring for sick relatives.

Bosses should know enough about their employees to understand if they need extra time for a project or are unable to attend after-hours meetings, Fitzgerald said.

“A lot of people feel that things are kind of out of control,” she said. “When the anxiety level rises, to have an empathetic and effective manager helping you through that is a gift.”

Fitzgerald also suggests that managers consider how they would have handled things when they were regular employees instead of bosses. “Think back to the days when you were training or when you were at that level,” she said.

Have a ‘deputy’ or coach

Since improving empathy skills requires feedback, Geisler said managers who are struggling should appoint a “deputy” — an employee you would trust to “really tap you on your shoulder”.

The deputy can point out if something isn’t quite right during staff meetings or if the manager is ignoring or misreading social cues, Geisler said. In turn, the manager needs to respond effectively to criticism or suggestions.

Companies might hire an executive coach for upper-level managers, Geisler said, or they could host seminars on becoming more empathetic.

But, she said, “Empathy is best done by a personal commitment and a smart coach.”

Create a culture that values empathy

“What you measure is what you value,” Geisler said.

If a company measures only performance, it’s missing out on other valuable metrics such as employee engagement and satisfaction, retention, and diversity.

When managers create policies, they should “think about the unintended consequences for the people you haven’t consulted”, Geisler said. “People who are empathetic tend to have that thought first.”

Managers should consult employees and consider whether a change will make their jobs harder or easier, according to Geisler.

“People who are empathetic tend to recognise that sharing the process helps people feel like they have a voice in it, if not a vote,” Geisler said. “If you are not empathetic, you say, ‘This is not a democracy. I’ve made a decision. And if you’ve got a problem with it, come see me.’”

Creating a culture of empathy comes down to valuing workers, Fitzgerald said.

“We’re not machines, we’re human beings,” she said. “We have a fundamental need to be understood, and that’s what a lot of bosses forget.”

— Sarah Nagem is a freelance writer based in the US. To comment on this article or to suggest an idea for another article, contact Neil Amato, an FM magazine senior editor, at