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The Difference of Empathetic Leadership in Times of Uncertainty

Laurie Cooke

President & CEO, Healthcare Businesswomen’s Association (HBA)

The pandemic has made the importance of kind and understanding leadership in the workplace clearer than ever before.

The capacity for noticing, understanding, and being sensitive to the feelings of those around us, otherwise known as empathy, has always been a key trait of our best leaders. This is particularly true in the healthcare community, where we serve people during some of the most vulnerable times of their lives.

But this past year has made clear that empathy is more than a “soft skill” or a nice-to-have. It is at the very foundation of what it means to be an effective leader.

This year, the move to remote work and homeschooling has put coworkers in one another’s living rooms. We see firsthand the struggles of our colleagues as they work to balance jobs and family, and to remain connected in times of physical isolation. The sustained groundswell of calls to address racial injustice has elevated the issue to the top of the national priority list. And a new and unknown virus has made us all more vulnerable. Whether worried about our own or a loved one’s health risks, our economic security, or our children’s education and social development — we are all facing an unprecedented level of uncertainty.

With all the challenges 2020 has brought us, the year has also offered those of us in leadership positions an opportunity. That is the opportunity to step fully into empathetic leadership in a way that places listening and understanding at the core of every communication and every decision. An empathetic workplace equals an engaged workforce — and that translates to business success. This has been proven by research, including a study from Harvard Business Review that found that empathetic companies outperform their less empathetic counterparts by 20 percent. Employees want to feel belonging and connection at work, and that relies on treating each other with kindess and understanding, which in turn enhances overall performance and improves their effectiveness.

For me, empathy becomes critical in times of uncertainty. It means sharing information in a way that offers a clear and accurate picture of an evolving situation, even when that picture isn’t a rosy one. It means continually asking questions, listening carefully to people’s needs, and reflecting back what we’re hearing to ensure full understanding and evidence that we are listening. And it means acting quickly to meet rapidly evolving challenges while sharing our honest thoughts, feelings, questions and even doubts at every step.

The future will continue to bring uncertainty. And it is particularly important that leaders are willing to take action. By being transparent, accessible, and vulnerable ourselves, we can help to create a more empathetic culture that builds greater trust. Trust that will serve us long after this pandemic is under control because it is trust above all else that allows for the creative and agile action needed to meet our greatest challenges.

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