The Key To Being A Great Virtual Leader Is Empathy
While both organizations and individuals are unsure of what life will look like post-Covid-19, one thing is for sure: remote work is here to stay. A 2020 Gallup poll found at least 72% of office workers would like to work remotely at least two days a week, while one-third said they would prefer to never go to an office again. This means leaders will have to learn how to effectively manage their teams virtually. Leaders will be leading individuals in different time zones in various environments with little or no information about what’s really going on for their employees.
As strange as this sounds, now that we’re all in different places, organizations need leaders who know how to create and drive connection and the best way to drive connection is by practicing empathy.
What Is Empathy and Why It Is Important for Leadership?
Empathy is the ability to sense and understand another person’s emotions, perspective and experience. Empathy is different from sympathy. Sympathy is when you feel sorry for another person while empathy is when you put yourself in someone else’s shoes so you can see events through their perspective.
The desire for more empathy at work isn’t new. Before Covid-19, 77% of workers would be willing to work more hours for a more empathetic workplace; meanwhile, 60% would actually accept a slashed salary for more empathy at work. Ninety-two percent of HR professionals note that a compassionate workplace is a major factor for employee retention.
According to the Harvard Business Review, businesses that put empathy and emotional intelligence ahead of everything else out perform other businesses by 20%. When a leader lacks empathy, everyone keeps their guard up and protects their own self-interest. This means employees don’t share ideas, issues or problems and leaders learn of their employee’s unhappiness only when that employee is walking out the door.
For the past year our entire nation has been at a heightened state of anxiety, which means your employees are more on edge, struggling to stay productive and are desperate for connection.
Empathy as a leadership skill helps you build the bonds of trust, it gives you insight into how people think and feel, it helps inform decision-making and it sharpens your intuition. All skills needed in the virtual world.
If you want to succeed as a leader in our new virtual workplace, here are 5 skills to start working on today:
1. Train your attention
Our modern world is full of distractions. Before WFH became the norm, most employees were struggling to complete tasks and found themselves working early in the morning or late at night to simply find another quiet time to complete their more involved projects. Your employees are distracted, which means you need to focus on training your attention so you can be more present for the people you lead.
Time and time again research has shown that learning to be more mindful is one of the keys to success. When you practice mindfulness, you’re learning how to train your attention to the present moment. We all tend to live in the past or the future. We ruminate about what we did in the past or we worry about what may or may not happen in the future.
What happens when you’re not “present” is you allow your past mistakes and fears of the future to influence how you feel and how you respond in the moment which doesn’t help you or your employees. You want to be able to respond based on what is happening today and now.
2. Active listening
As you start to learn how to train your attention, you can begin to practice active listening. Active listening is when you observe someone else is speaking and you focus completely on what that other person is saying. In other words, you stop doing what you’re doing, make eye contact with them, and move your body to face them. If you find your mind wandering while trying to listen or if you’re in a virtual setting with a lot of distractions you can take notes to ensure you’re focusing on what they’re saying.
If you practice this, you’re going to make your employees feel seen, heard and valued. Active listening will help you really understand what your direct reports need and want and you’re going to pick up on some signals virtually you otherwise wouldn’t.
You want to listen to the tone of voice, notice if they have their video on or off or if they seem distracted. By really listening to each person, you’re going to pick up on some cues that may alert you to a colleague or direct report who may be struggling.
3. Make time to build trust
Just because you have the title of “boss” or “leader” doesn’t automatically mean your employees trust you and when you skip trust building, the work environment doesn’t feel safe. A “safe” working environment is one where leaders make it OK to fail and make mistakes. When employees know it’s OK to fail, they are better able to make decisions. Empathetic leaders openly talk about their own missteps and use them as a way to help their team learn and grow.
A big way to build trust is by making sure everyone is aware of the short-term and long-term goals of the company. You don’t have to tell everyone everything that’s happening all the time but if you’re not open about the overall direction of the company and what your plan is for the next 6 months or year, it will make everyone feel on edge and create a sense of fear and uncertainty. When people don’t know why they’re working on a project or what direction it’s going in, they start to check out and become apathetic.
Virtually this means frequently checking in to make sure everyone is on the same page and everyone knows exactly what they need to be doing while ensuring they have the resources they need to make it happen. Focus on what your employees are delivering as opposed to how much time they are spending in front of their computer each day. In order to build trust with your employee, you need to show that you trust the employee. So as long as they are meeting deadlines and producing good work it doesn’t matter if they have different working hours.
One of the biggest things leaders do that breaks trust is consistently cancelling or rescheduling 1:1 meetings. If your employees can’t trust that you’ll keep a meeting with them, how can they trust you and the organization with their career aspirations?
4. Be clear and transparent
Leadership starts with you, which means you need to make sure you’re always being clear and direct. Brené Brown says it perfectly in her book, Dare to Lead, “Clear is kind. Unclear is unkind.”
Being transparent means saying what you mean and meaning what you say. Being a leader isn’t about having all the answers all the time, it takes more courage to say, “Gee, I don’t know. I’ll have to ask and get back to you” rather than telling someone something you think they want to hear.
Having clear and transparent communication is critical in the virtual world like defining when you will be online and when you will be offline. Be sure to post your work schedule so everyone on your team knows when they can reach you. We don’t have the luxury of being able to pop our heads into our boss’s office for a quick question or to talk through a problem, which means your employees need to know when you’re available.
5. Be intentional
When you’re intentional you’re taking thoughtful, purposeful action. When a leader is intentional, they take time to think through how they are going to say or do something. When we embody an intention, we’re thinking through the impact we may or may not have on another person. Just as a parent has to be grounded and intentional about how they interact with their children, as a leader your intentions and how you show up at work every day really matters.
Virtually this means if you’re struggling to communicate something in an instant message or email, stop for a moment and think about the ways your message could easily be misinterpreted. This is when you need to pick up the phone or get on a Zoom call so the receiver can hear your voice and tone. People tend to be less guarded and more negative when they write things down in a message.
Think through how you think your statements might impact another person. There is a big difference between, “You just have to make the deadline” vs. “I understand where you’re coming from. It’ll be tough to meet that deadline but let’s talk about how we can all support each other.”
What Stops Leaders from Developing Empathy Skills?
Simply put: change is hard and being a leader is hard….really, really hard. As a manager and leader you have so much to do you feel like you barely have time each day to eat your lunch in peace or manage to squeeze in a few bathroom breaks. People want to be better leaders but they choose not to be empathetic because it requires work.
There are “cognitive costs” required by empathy. Learning to be present and practicing attention training, actively listening, being transparent, building trust and being intentional requires a lot.
Empathy requires you to be vulnerable, humble, and human, which at times seems like it contradicts what it means to be a “great” leader let alone keep your job and feel competent.
Practicing empathy is an investment. It’s an investment in yourself and the overall health of your organization. This past year has taught our entire nation so many lessons but mostly it has taught us our leaders matter. We’ve all collectively experienced something that has changed our way of thinking and being in the world.
If you plan to be a leader today then plan to be a virtual leader because it will become an integral part of your role. Practicing empathy will not only improve your performance as a leader but it will improve every single one of your relationships in life. You’ll feel more in control of your emotions, which will reduce your anxiety and stress and you’ll have stronger relationships with your employees. While becoming an empathetic leader is more work at times, it will save you and your organization time and money in the future because you’ll be able to retain employees longer and you’ll have a team of happy, motivated people.