5 Qualities of Empathetic Leaders Amidst Uncertainty

Business Leaders

For businesses around the world, the COVID-19 pandemic precipitated a crucial wake-up call around the importance of mindful, empathetic leadership.

In a recent Team Bites podcast, our Director, Cliff Ettridge spoke to Duncan Young who, until recently, was a senior communications executive at NatWest Group. They discussed the future of work and communications as we move into 2022 and beyond.

One overarching theme of the conversation highlighted an emerging demand for more empathetic, value-driven leadership, and the importance of prioritising employee needs through communication channels to create the workplace of the future.

Ettridge and Young agreed that in uncertain times, leaders need to rethink their approach, and ensure that empathy trickles down through the organisation from the top. As their chat proved, leaders who get this right have a few striking things in common. Read on for the top five, or listen to the full podcast here.

They’re comfortable with disruption

As a senior leader for one of the UK’s biggest banks, Young experienced first-hand the challenges of adjusting to impact of COVID-19 on a mass scale.

Young credits his 15 years of experience in the media before moving into corporate communications with giving him a foundation for working amidst disruption and change. He intimately understood the experience of “putting together a plan or a program on a given day… and then something happens and you have to rip it up and start over again.”

Being familiar and comfortable with sudden change was highly valuable, especially in the early days when “the things occurring as a result of COVID were new and instant and unsettling. Things that were happening were having a direct impact on our audience and our people and their families.”

Sensitivity, compassion, awareness, and the ability to act immediately and at scale become non-negotiable qualities of an effective leader in this time – perhaps more than ever before.

They tune in

It’s commonly felt within the business community that prior to the pandemic, there was a clearer delineation between work and home life. There was a sense of “putting your armour on and going to work,” Young said. “But that’s been eroded now.”

In the wake of COVID, empathy in the workplace has never been more important. “I’m spending much more time checking in, making sure I have a better awareness of how people work and how they’re coping. It’s not something that felt as necessary or relevant prior to all this.”

Tuning in on a deep level, he mused, is no longer a benefit that only the most emotionally intelligent leaders can offer – it’s the most important thing any leader can do to maintain morale and efficiency.

They adjust priorities based on people’s needs

Tuning in, though, is just the first step toward more empathetic leadership. How leaders act on what they learn by asking the right questions is the true superpower than needs to be mastered.

Reflecting again on his history working in newsrooms and how he’s applied it looking after comms at on a global scale, Young spoke about the importance of prioritising messaging based on what information people need most at any given time.

“Pre-pandemic, we had a proliferation of internal content channels – lots of organisational content but lots of soft content as well to complement the culture of the organisation as well.” This naturally leads to people opting in only to the information that’s most relevant to them – a term Young coins “optionality”, and a phenomenon we often take into consideration when strategizing how to shift consumer and employee behaviour for clients at The Team.

Employees and customers alike were opting into and seeking out different kinds of content – and it was up to Young and his team to guide their experience based on what they needed. Tuning in to how people were engaging with content allowed Young and his team to act with empathy, integrity, and purpose. “We stopped doing a lot of stuff at the edges to free up capacity and resource to make sure we were keeping people informed about COVID – what that meant for them, their customers, and our working situation,” he says.

A functional example of this at a large scale: while Young and his team had been set to share the company’s goals for the future in February of 2020, they had to quickly and thoughtfully readjust the way they communicated a vision for an unexpectedly unstable future.

They’re authentic

“People often have an idea that a big company has the answers up their sleeve as to how they’d deal with this type of disruption,” Young mused. “But the reality is it takes an enormous amount of thought and unprecedented conversations, and that will have to be done through feel and lived experience. It will be trial and error.”

Only by staying authentic to their values can companies big or small deliver a human element to their plans and conversations.

Some organisations will revert to their “old normal”, while others will seek to “tear up the rule book”. But it’s a blend of both, cultivated through tuning in and authentic adjustment, that will be the way forward for businesses in terms of empathetic, realistic, future-facing approaches.

They maintain optimism

Throughout the conversation, Young maintained an admirable optimism that acknowledged the challenges faced by organisations without diminishing the positive possibilities a new way of thinking about work and communications can bring to the fore. It’s that quality, above all else, that exemplifies the strengths of an empathetic leader: the ability to look unprecedented opposition in the face, see it for what it is, and find the best way forward for everyone under your leadership.