The Key to Genuine Empathy

If there’s one thing we know for sure during this time of upheaval and uncertainty, it’s that people are hurting. Our teams are hurting, and as senior leaders, it is our responsibility (and privilege) to address these pain points on a personal level. Not doing so directly or shirking our responsibilities to our team will quickly lead to lost productivity, diminished morale, decreased engagement and less effective navigation of business challenges. You want to come out the other end of this time with your team intact, engaged and committed to driving your organization forward.

In tough times, leaders can extend their influence with their team by demonstrating empathy. 

Empathetic leaders strive to create a workplace or team where employees feel psychologically safe, which simply means they are able to show and employ their complete selves at work without fear of negative consequences to their self-images, statuses or careers. Empathetic leaders are in tune with all of the unique situations transpiring in people’s work and personal lives. The current COVID-19 pandemic and the important conversations about racial inequality happening now in the U.S. have erased the hard lines between those two arenas.

Historically, most leaders and managers have never been trained to demonstrate, let alone embrace, this critical leadership trait. However, in today’s uncertain and stressful environment, it’s more important than ever to tap into your empathy and compassion skills in order to survive and thrive in this crisis with your team intact. 

Author and speaker Lisa Earle McLeod calls empathy during a crisis “an absolute superpower.” She notes that this time is a defining moment, where people (your employees, future employees and your customers) will remember how leaders behaved. And they will remember it for years to come.

Empathy, Lisa says, is demonstrating to your team, “I see you and I stand with you.” Empathy is not a PR strategy nor something you can “put on” inauthentically. It requires tapping into the authentic desire to understand another’s experience, which is at the heart of inclusion culture. 

The key to genuine empathy is to EVOLVE, a framework (detailed below) of intentions and actions to demonstrate what empathy looks like in your daily interactions.

  • Explore. Explore your hidden and unconscious biases. This directly links to a statement each of us is making more frequently now: “We’ve never done it like that before.” This means embracing risk-taking. We are all living in unprecedented times and must be open to solutions and new ways of doing things that support our people and teams.

  • Value the person. And do it genuinely! Managers and meeting leaders need to ask a simple question to open every meeting: “How are you doing today?” Recognize that your team members may be grieving and traumatized by recent events that we are watching unfold in front of us. They may have sick parents or friends or spouses who have lost their jobs or been furloughed. They may be concerned about their kids going back to school in the fall (or not). Give everyone a chance to answer and be heard. Make time to foster individual connections.

  • Open-minded. Stay open-minded to what your team is saying. Choose not to dismiss different points of view because they’re not what you’re used to hearing. Use a strategy like Kristen Pressner’s Flip it to Test It to shine a light on the unrecognized ways you think about the way work is done, how you interact with different groups of people and how to break old paradigms.

  • Listen. Not just to the words but also to the feelings and emotions behind the words. Managing our teams virtually challenges managers to dig deeper to create engagement with all our associates. Ask about the experiences your employees are having in the workplace and listen to their answers. You will discover root-cause issues that you didn’t know existed in your company.

  • Validate. Restate what you believe you’ve heard and what you believe the person is feeling. Working virtually means we may not see the nonverbal communication taking place and it is easy to misinterpret the intended meaning. You may be off-base, so don’t assume. Seek to understand by saying, “If I hear you correctly…” followed by, “Is that right?” If it is, you may proceed.

  • Engage. Engagement is the “I stand with you” part of the equation. You are asking permission to move forward together. In these incredibly challenging times, senior leaders need to pay special attention to engagement. To extend your influence with your team, they must feel that you stand with them and that you are engaged in the things that are important to them. 

One note: You don’t have to have all of the answers. Don’t assume that you’ll need to provide solutions or remove every obstacle for your team. By just listening—genuinely listening—you are providing comfort and demonstrating leadership.  

Empathy is the No. 1 leadership skill needed for managers today and in the future. It is at the core of your ability to influence others. As the poet Maya Angelou wisely said, “At the end of the day people won’t remember what you said or did, they will remember how you made them feel.” Be sure that when your team looks back on this crucial moment in history, they remember that you made them feel valued and included as providing critical support for your company’s success and bottom line.


Jeffery Tobias Halter

Jeffery Tobias Halter is president of YWomen, a strategic consulting company focused on engaging men in women’s leadership advancement. Founder of the Father of Daughter Initiative, creator of the Gender Conversation QuickStarters Newsletter and the Male Advocacy Profile, Jeffery is former director of diversity strategy for The Coca-Cola Company and is the author of two books, “WHY WOMEN, The Leadership Imperative to Advancing Women and Engaging Men” and “Selling to Men, Selling to Women.”

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