By: Sarah Kyo
According to global analyst Josh Bersin, we are now in the middle of “The Big Reset” – a series of major organizational shifts in expectations, priorities, and approaches due to the COVID-19 pandemic. One area that has transformed over recent months is what we value in great leadership.
Usually, a CEO’s success is tied to financial results, business growth, achievement of organizational goals, and other related factors. However, the pandemic has affected the worldwide economy across multiple industries, changing the way we work for good. Companies need to make drastic, long-lasting changes to workplace layouts, procedures, and perks while preparing to return to work.
Meanwhile, employees have had to endure multiple sources of stress and anxiety in their professional and personal lives in recent months. On top of the global pandemic, racial injustices such as the murders of George Floyd and Breonna Taylor have fueled a global resurgence of the Black Lives Matter movement, which has certainly impacted employee morale at various organizations. In response, the role of the CEO requires a shift during this challenging time.
“Leaders in a crisis focus on ‘empathy and compassion first, business second,’” Bersin emphasizes when describing the Chief Empathy Officer, the new role that CEOs need to play while leading their teams amid great uncertainty.
Empathy in the Workplace
“Empathy is the ability to understand another person’s experience, perspective, and feelings,” defines psychiatrist and psychoanalyst Prudy Gourguechon, who makes the case that empathy is an essential leadership skill. “Also called ‘vicarious introspection,’ it’s commonly described as the ability to put yourself in another person’s shoes. But make sure you are assessing how they would feel in their shoes, not how you would feel in their shoes. This is the tricky part.”
Gourguechon makes a great point: It can be challenging to truly relate to the perspective of another person who has a different background, experience, or opinion as you. While it is tempting to apply your own worldview on what someone else is thinking and feeling, real empathy requires you to truly understand where that other person is coming from.
For example, let’s say that some of your employees have concerns about transitioning from remote work back to the office environment. Before using an empathetic perspective, you might think those employees are irrationally worrying too much. After all, you have been deeply involved with the behind-the-scenes return-to-work planning, including talking to experts, utilizing resources, and familiarizing yourself with the necessary safety protocols that your company will take – you know that you won’t try to recklessly endanger your team.
However, when applying more empathy, you can see how those employees would be apprehensive considering the amount of increasing COVID-19 cases across various states – emotions and concerns are understandably more heightened. You would also recognize how important it is for your leadership team to create a sense of security for all employees, ensuring everything is in place before making this major transition to return to work. In other words, companies must create trust through their communications and actions. This includes collecting employee feedback, developing a plan, creating a realistic timeline, being open to adjusting that timeline and other procedures, and taking the time to share updates clearly and thoughtfully to employees along the way.
5 Ways the Chief Empathy Officer Can Build Trust
Unlike technical skills, gaining more empathy is something that you cannot obtain from formal training or education. Some people are naturally quite empathetic, while it may take others more awareness and effort to cultivate this trait. Regardless of where you are at on your development journey, here are five actions you can take to create a greater sense of security on your team through empathy.
- Listen Attentively
Lately, companies have been paying even closer attention to employee mental health and overall well-being. They are trying to figure out the right words to say and the right resources to provide. Part of being effective communicators is really listening to the thoughts and concerns of others, including showing humility when faced with areas of improvement and actively trying to do better.
- Be Transparent
If you want your organization to play an active role in dismantling systemic racism, make sure your action steps are specific and clear. Also, directly communicate your intentions to your employees, customers, and others, so they can know your stance and help keep you accountable.
- Display Flexibility
Heading into 2020, you may have had a grand vision of organizational goals to achieve. Due to the pandemic, though, some of those plans may have had to change. Instead of being rigid, now is the time to show some flexibility and agility. For example, employee expectations and goal setting may need to adjust in light of our current situation.
- Inspire Resilience
As a leader, you play an important role in establishing the tone of the rest of your organization. If you are constantly grim and negative, that attitude will carry over to others. While it is important to transparently share any necessary, challenging news, you also need balance. For instance, the positive developments and contributions that are happening are still worth sharing with your team. Challenges can test people, but they can also bring people together – your employees need to gather inspiration from you.
- Create a Connected Enterprise
Everyone in your organization may be currently dispersed, but thanks to technology and rapid digital transformation, you can create a connected enterprise. Take advantage of software and tools like video conferencing, messaging, and email to stay in touch. If your organization is implementing a change initiative, you can increase the odds of its success by keeping your team in the loop and earning employee buy-in. Change communications software can help you create a personalized employee experience with engaging content, intriguing messaging campaigns, and communication journeys that encourage change adoption.
Empathy is an invaluable leadership quality during major crises, as well as everyday interpersonal interactions. On a much larger scale, the lines between professional and personal lives have blurred due to recent traumas and challenges – many employees are trying to balance taking care of themselves, their families, and their communities, all while performing at their jobs. Employees need more support from their employers right now, and it all starts from the top. The Chief Empathy Officer has a responsibility to care for their people, who all play an important role in their organization’s success.