What role does empathetic leadership play during a pandemic?

linda le, market analyst, thedocyard

As people adjust to the new COVID-normal, it’s time to take stock on what worked and what could be improved from our initial response. Much of this comes down to leadership. In this post, we’ll explore what role empathy plays during a pandemic, particularly in the context of leadership.

In Doris Kearns Goodwin's book, Leadership: In Turbulent Times, she reflects on notable American presidents in times of crisis, emphasising the value of empathy in effective leadership. This means going one step further, identifying with others and sharing their feelings. In order to empathise with others, it is integral to step into the shoes of others and look at the world through their perspective. It requires a high level of vulnerability that makes many uncomfortable. As a leader, displaying empathy reveals more than just compassion, but also strength and courage.

Aroha from afar: Jacinda Arden

Leaders who have exuded empathy in the midst of the COVID-19 crisis have experienced surges in popularity. An oft-cited example is New Zealand’s Prime Minister, Jacinda Ardern. Her compassionate response to the Christchurch mosque shooting in 2019 and urgent reform to New Zealand’s gun laws have been acclaimed worldwide. In a profile for The Atlantic magazine, Ardern’s ability to empathize has labelled her to be “the most effective leader on the planet”. One of Ardern’s forerunners sums it up: “There’s a high level of trust and confidence in her because of that empathy.”

This is evident as the trust that New Zealanders have placed in Ardern, along with her government’s strong measures to reduce COVID-19 cases, are both credited with dramatically reducing the outbreak’s severity in her country. It is easier to trust the empathy of a leader than the weak sympathy of one who grieves the loss of his own power over the loss of life.

Facilitating better stakeholder engagement beyond politics

In the current business climate, mass layoffs are becoming increasingly common as organistions fight to stay in business. However, Chairman of Tata Trusts, Rata Tata slammed layoffs as a knee-jerk reaction lacking in empathy among the top leaders. He stressed the need for more sensitivity to be shown to all stakeholders and explained that a company's survival is impossible without empathy.

This is supported by recent research which demonstrates that empathetic workplaces tend to enjoy stronger collaboration, less stress, and greater morale, and employees bounce back faster from difficult moments such as layoffs.

Even where companies had to be downsized to sustain during this pandemic, leaders such as Brian Chesky, CEO and co-founder of Airbnb have shown strength as empathetic leaders. Faced with making 1900 employees redundant, he wrote a letter to his employees. In this letter, he was transparent about the decision-making process, listed a clear set of guiding principles to ensure employees did not blame themselves. He recognised their hard work when he wrote, “One of the most important ways we can honour those who are leaving is for them to know their contributions mattered, and that they will always be a part of Airbnb’s story.”

Keep the momentum going

Besides job insecurity, the pandemic affected people’s mental health. This was triggered by the sudden loss of social contact as employees shifted to remote work, the rise in anti-Asian sentiment, and ongoing uncertainty. Leaders that did well expressed empathy for stressed employees, crying babies or pesky pets crashing video calls.

In an article for Forbes, Prudy Georuguchen explains that while empathy is an innate human trait, it can be learned to some extent. The pandemic has taught people to practice more empathy and to be inspired by examples of other empathetic leaders.

It will be vital to continue to maintain this practice of empathy post-pandemic, as it plays a role in improving employee retention, advocacy and even leads to business success. Now more than ever, we need to show empathy as leaders; only then may we ensure the survival of our organisations, the safety of our countries, but most importantly the well-being of our people.

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