Crisis can spawn great leaps in innovation, but it can also lead to fear, a scarcity mindset and self-preservation tendencies. Long before COVID-19 we knew that poor leadership could be toxic and have disastrous side effects. Never has this been brought into sharper focus than now.

This storm will pass, but leaders’ actions today will not only make or break their organization but also have lasting effects on people’s lives. As pivot has become the new moniker for business turnaround, what is clear is that we are at an inflection point for leaders who must also adopt a new operating reality. But it is not as easy as clicking “update now” and waiting for the whizzy new features to download. As leaders navigate the new normal and try to avoid the pitfall of morphing from crisis to stasis, empathy  — not financial stimulus — will become a source of advantage. So how do you operationalize empathy in a crisis? 

1. Become more self-aware

The first step is a mindset shift – away from the misguided belief that as a leader you need to be always on right now, that crisis leadership is about stamina not self-reflection. Leaders who have a clear understanding of their strengths and limitations are more empathetic than those who lack self-awareness. Put on your own oxygen mask before helping others. Consider this a time to invest in some reflective journaling, coaching or objective assessment and feedback to better understand your strengths and derailers as a leader.  The line between strength and weakness is not always clear. The same ambition and drive that got you the reputation as a go-getter, willing to meet a challenge head on, might in this time make you seem cut-throat and insensitive. Reframe this self-reflection: see it not as an indulgence but as a way to recharge so you make wiser judgments as a leader.

2. Build connection

As we remain physically distant, connection is more important than ever.  From mirror neurons in our brains that fire when we sync with each other to the power of touch, we are a social species wired to connect. Connection is the cornerstone of empathy. Yet disconnection is also surprisingly easy for us. We are flawed, fear-prone and irrational; a crisis threatens our most fundamental need – safety. With five times more threat than reward receptors in our brains, we default to freeze, flee or fight, ignoring the longing to build authentic connections with people.  Accelerated by adrenaline and fueled with fear, leaders are putting on a brave and visible face broadcasting rousing messages to their employees. Yet authentic connection is not about heroic deeds, or even highly visible actions but paying attention, listening and gestures of genuine care. This means opening the door to authentic conversations that start with “How are you… your family?” “What can I do to support you right now?” Now, more than ever, leaders need to foster personal connections with their team, customers, stakeholders and colleagues, and resist the urge to sign up for communication and public relation panaceas. 

3. Operate with positive intent

The fundamental belief underpinning positive intent is the assumption that people are doing the best they can with what they have right now. When people are afraid they are more sensitive to being put down, ridiculed for trying something new or failing or putting forward a novel idea. Positive intent requires offering the most generous interpretation you can of why somebody did something. It is easy to intellectually know this but our brains have a negativity bias that fixates on failure and mistakes more keenly than success.  From an evolutionary point of view this served us well. Paying attention to negative and dangerous threats was a matter of life and death. The negativity bias still has a starring role in how our brain operates, but as a leader you can mitigate the negativity bias by acknowledging more of what people do right than wrong (do this with yourself too!). Be generous and specific when you give praise, and right now do so often. Ask yourself, “How do I want this person to feel after interacting with me?” “Could I reframe this in a more positive light.”

4. Be curious

Leadership is not about being right but getting it right. This means resisting launching into fix it mode with swashbuckling action to slay the proverbial dragon blocking the path. We would often settle for a suboptimal solution that leads to action than stay in the uncertainly of problem identification. Curiosity is messy, unruly, deviant and makes our head spin. Yet now, when everything is upended, is time for integrative thinking, not settling for “either or” solutions. Try to get curious and listen without judgment, criticism, interruption and offering advice unsolicited or otherwise. See how hard it is to do!  Instead ask questions that help to deepen thinking, “Tell me more”,” “I’m wondering”, “Help me understand” and clarify and revel the essence of the problem,  “What problem are we trying to solve”, “I’m working from these assumptions, how about you?” 

5. Show compassion

Compassion is not a word often used in corporate parlance. Yet today compassion and its kin, kindness, are the ventilators supplying the psychological oxygen we all need to breathe our way through this. While crisis brings out the very best in many leaders, a lack of compassion can affect people as deeply as the virus. Kindness is found in the littlest moments with small acts of care and concern.  Layered and stacked up one upon the other, these acts build a secure foundation on which a leader can stand when all else is crumbling.  Doing something kind for someone else creates a desire to repay the kindness. Reciprocity is potent and positively contagious. It binds us in social obligation to each other and inspires people to pay it forward. Make it a daily habit to do at least one small act of kindness and see the effect your ripple creates.

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