Leading with Empathy

Original article published by Locimo.

Even before 2020, you’d be hard-pressed to find a business that hadn’t been through their

share of ups and downs, and uncertain times.

While there are some good news stories where uncertainty and unpredictability has allowed

businesses to evolve and adapt in ways they never thought possible, in general, rapid

and/sustain uncertainty is bad news for business, team morale and consumer confidence.

It’s during these times that leaders need to be particularly self-aware and take a very close

look at their own behaviour, asking themselves “am I contributing to destructive behaviours

and feelings, or am I leading myself and my teams to a more productive dialogue?”.

If you’re feeling that all eyes are on you, then rightly so. How you react as a leader (and

organisation) will be remembered by your teams long after there is a new semblance of

normality. You are likely feeling that you need to have all the answers or know exactly what

to do.

Well the good news is, how you lead during times of uncertainty doesn’t come down to

knowing exactly what to do, but more about how you make your team feel.

Doing this well starts with empathy. It’s a crucial skill at all times, but even more so in times

of turbulence and uncertainty.

In the current environment, ambiguity and anxiety is heightened. Even individuals that

empathy comes more naturally to, may feel drained or that it’s increasingly more difficult to

implement. But like many soft skills, building empathy is much like building muscles –

through regular and consistent training.

Not sure where to start? Here are some ways to lead with empathy:

Become an active listener

Active listening required both verbal and non-verbal cues in order to have your team feel

that you truly care. Consider your body language, eye contact, and other non-verbal cues

such as nodding and smiling.

Avoid interrupting or talking over the top of the speaker and promote further depth to the

conversation by asking questions, reflecting back what’s been said or asking for more


Leading with empathy often involves saying very little. While it can feel most natural to want

to become an immediate problem solver, often it’s just as effective to make sure the speaker

feels they’ve been heard.

Practice presence

If you feel scattered and distracted, your team will likely pick up on that too – this will have

the opposite effect on building trust and a safe space for them to open up about what they

are experiencing.

Plus, if your mind is genuinely elsewhere, and you’re unable to focus on the now, you won’t

have the appropriate capacity to listen and respond in an empathetic way.

When you are in an intentional conversation with someone, turn your phone to silent, close

your laptop, be genuinely present and focus on what’s being said.

Be accessible

As a leader, you’ll be faced with scenarios that are uncomfortable and unsettling – and let’s

face it, sometimes it feels like it’s a whole lot easier to hide away than to make yourself

visible and accessible.

Now this isn’t to say that you have to be available every waking moment, but make sure you

communicate to your team when your door is open (metaphorically or otherwise). Where

possible, get out and about and work that frontline with your teams.

Humanise yourself

Often when we form connections with others it’s because we are sharing a common

emotion. Don’t feel that you have to always look like you have “got it together”. By sharing

personal anecdotes, particularly your challenges, you can build stronger rapport and make

yourself more related to others.

A word of warning; be careful not to flip the conversation into a monologue about your own

life – it’s a fine balance to be conscious of.

Promote connection and belonging

As humans, we have an innate desire to be connected and belong to a tribe. Whether 2020

saw your teams move to remote work, split shifts, rotating rosters, the rapid disruption to

day to day work likely had an impact on their connectivity. Create space to have

conversations that aren’t solely focused on work or tasks to create deeper connections.

Build shared goals so individuals feel that they are contributing to something together, as a


Finally, be kind to yourself

As a leader, you are performing your “usual” role and duties under the additional stress of

escalated health and safety risks, rapidly changing policies, and not to mention your own

personal work-life challenges.

So if it feels like a lot, that’s because it is.

You will not be able to lead effectively if you are also struggling, so be sure to reach out to

your own support network and lookout for ways to continue to take care of your own needs.

As an added bonus, if you role model wellbeing and self-care, it’s likely that your team will

follow suit.

Leading with empathy is powerful – not only does it help you to truly understand others’

perspective, it creates stronger psychological safety so that your team feel heard and

supported. Taking an empathetic approach to leading your teams, will allow you to be far

more likely to stop the early signs of overworked or disengaged employees.

Written by
Katie Hamilton