Tools for Leading in Times of Immense Change: How a pandemic and an uprising can make you a better leader. Part 1

Posted on June 23, 2020

In the midst of massive changes to work and life, you may be unsure how to act or respond. As a leader, whether you are a manager or a team lead or the person with the longest tenure at the company or simply someone looking to expand their leadership skills, not knowing how to move forward is very pronounced right now. All the tools you’ve used in the past that consistently worked with various team members may have just stopped functioning. We cannot assume what worked before will continue to work.

Perhaps you have a team member who needed long 1-on-1s to process everything and now they are emailing up a storm and being taciturn in those meetings. Maybe you have someone on your team who is always the voice of calm and sees all sides who is suddenly arguing dogmatically for one way of doing things.

Maybe you are a non-Black person managing a Black person and are unsure how to act or respond or what to say at all. Maybe you are a Person of Color managing a White person who is suddenly expressing views that offend you or asking you questions you don’t have the emotional bandwidth to answer.

You may find yourself working with a group of people that feel like the same old people some days and totally different people other days. Or maybe one person has been cool as a cucumber for the past three months and then one day gets incredibly upset in a way that seems out of character to you.

When work and life change, these unexpected reactions must be expected. This is true when the changes are at an individual level (birth of a child, divorce, health diagnosis) or at the cultural level (pandemic, social justice uprising). While we can know that people may react in new ways, we cannot simply intuit, without deep communication, who will behave in what way or why.

We must now change our expectations of people’s behavior. And, perhaps more importantly, change our expectations for how we lead and manage our teams. We cannot assume what worked before will continue to work.

The beautiful news about knowing that we may need new and different responses is that it allows us to practice a core leadership skill: empathy.

Why empathy?

Empathy is what allows us to deeply connect with another human being. From that perspective, why not empathy?

You may have heard about empathy in the context of leadership. You may even be practicing empathy. If so, this is a moment to double down your efforts as empathy can be harder to do during difficult moments. Leaders are human and the same unexpected reactions come from within us as well. During challenging times, our own reactions and emotions can get in the way of empathy for others.

If you are actively using empathy tools right now, these blogs may revitalize your work. If you have struggled to grasp or apply empathy, my hope is that this blog series helps. If you think empathy is bullshit, I hear you and believe a practical approach to empathy might change your mind.

We are all aware of the adage that people leave managers not companies. That is often not because of overt or intentional bad treatment; it is because people want to be heard and appreciated. They want empathy.

As a leader, your job is to move your team, together, towards business objectives. You are able to do that by using your position of power (formal or informal) to influence their behavior and actions. This isn’t as creepy as it sounds. We are all influenced, consciously and unconsciously, by the people around us and our goal as leaders is to influence people compassionately and for good.

To effectively move our teams towards goals and with compassion, we need to understand what drives and motivates each person. We need to speak to and adapt to those drives and motivations. Ideally, we find solutions that serve individuals (their growth, values, and purpose), the team, and the business as a whole. Empathy is also incredibly useful for interactions with customers and the world, though this series focuses on using empathy in internal teams. The outcome of empathy can and should circle back to influencing business objectives, approaches, and culture. For now, I’m going to focus specifically on empathy in leading a team.

Empathy is what allows us to understand individuals. It is what allows us to see them, to hear them, to reach them. Without empathy, we are authoritarian or, perhaps worse, self-centered people who assume everyone thinks and feels exactly like we do.

If you would like a business case for empathy, consider that, without it, we tend to lead and influence, (often unintentionally) through fear and coercion. Admittedly, these tactics work to a degree. In the context of fear and coercion, people will comply with exact requests — and nothing more. People will compete with each other even when it hurts the business and team as a whole. And then people will leave as soon as they find something that pays more or gives them even a minimal increase in benefits or compensation. Particularly in competitive industries, leading without empathy hurts the business’s bottom line. It costs so much more to recruit and train people than it does to keep them.

With empathy, we lead through delegation (less work for you), autonomy (less work for you), and collaboration (less work for you and better outcomes). Creativity and innovation springs from places where people feel heard and safe to explore and make mistakes. People feel heard and safe when they are shown empathy.

What is empathy?

Empathy starts with curiosity about people. How does this person work? What do they value? What drives them? What makes them tick? If you are an engineer or designer or problem solver, you already apply curiosity to so much of what you do. Use that curiosity muscle for your people.

Once you get curious about someone, you can get into the guts of empty: understanding a person’s reasoning and emotions without judgment. I know, right? HARD. Empathy is finding the (sometimes winding) path from the story or assumption someone starts with to their final action. It is not agreeing with the final action or even the starting point. It is understanding and following the steps along the way.

Why is the without judgment part important? Because we cannot truly understand and judge at the same time. To pass judgment inherently puts us above others and not on the same level. There is no understanding when we are looking down at people. Superiority does not lead to getting where they are coming from and why. This is true of practicing self-empathy as well — something we will talk about as a starting place for developing the empathy muscle.

Especially during this moment in history, I also want to be clear about what empathy is not. Empathy is not “I know exactly how you feel.” It is true and important that we all have felt sadness and anger and fear and joy. It is true and important that we can recognize those things in other people. But that does not mean you know exactly how someone feels. There is so much nuance and backstory to everyone’s existence that we can never fully know how someone feels. What we can do is listen with an open heart and try to understand their reasoning and emotions without judgment (empathy!).

How do I empathy?

Contrary to popular belief, empathy is a skill. It is not some unknowable innate gift. It requires practice and effort. Practice and effort lead to being better at empathy. This should be exciting for all of us. Empathy is attainable. Here are some broad brush strokes to get us thinking about how to do empathy and ideas we will dig into and practice in future posts.

The ability to understand a person’s reasoning and emotions requires us to have excellent listening skills. And listening is hard, much harder than we give it credit for. In trying to listen effectively, we usually get in our own way. We unconsciously react to our own emotions. We listen to that inner monologue that judges others (or more often ourselves) and focuses on all the ways we will respond to what is being said. When we focus on responding, we often miss crucial things people are saying. At the end of the day, we get in our own way when trying to listen, because we often don’t do a good job of listening to ourselves. So we have to start there: with ourselves.

The first skill we need to practice is learning to name and recognize our own emotions. Without this language and understanding of our own emotions, it’s impossible to accurately and fully be able to recognize them in others. This skill of recognizing our own emotions also allows us to identify when we are having a feeling and then choose to respond to that feeling instead of being reactive.

Not being reactive and swimming in a soup of our feelings and insecurities is the foundation for the next prerequisite for empathy: shutting off our inner narrator. You know, that movie voice that revs up for a fight as soon as someone says a phrase with which we disagree. The inner narrator that starts replaying all the shit things this person has done or said. The inner narrator that criticizes us and shames us for everything we did leading up to this conversation. The inner narrator that thinks they know what someone is going to say and also thinks they feel the exact same way. Like noise-canceling headphones, shutting off our inner narrator allows us to truly listen, hear, and understand what others are telling us.

Doubters, I know I promised you practical skills and tools. Now that the intro is out of the way, they are coming! In the next set of blog posts, we will dig deeper into: naming and recognizing our emotions, shutting off our inner narrator, and listening. We will turn these skills and tools into more impactful and sustaining leadership and management.


This blog post is the second in a series on Empathy + Leadership: Tools for Leading in Times of Immense Change:

I’m in the process of writing a book on leadership, power, and belonging. If you’d like to keep up to date with my progress and posts related to leadership, join my mailing list!


photo credit: joepiette2 Human Rights Advocates, Hunger Strikers, Gather to Tell Wolf: “Free People Now!” via photopin CC BY-SA 2.0


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