Reputation Management
Back To Trending

The Skill Every Leader Needs: Empathy

Heading into the third school year that will involve a pandemic, it’s natural to reflect over the last 12 months and wonder when the stressful uncertainty and high-stakes decisions will finally give you a break. Even as many people enjoyed a summer that felt more normal, leaders and their staff members are now likely armoring up, emotionally and mentally, for another year of adjusting and readjusting.

As the changes in vaccination rates, interpersonal conflict and safety measures ebb and flow in communities across the country, there are “normal” dips or low points any time a sustained crisis feels like it could be resolving. The adrenaline and cortisol our bodies release during crisis events help us manage tasks and obligations, But eventually the body and brain will seek time to recover.

Your team right now

Even with a changing landscape, the team and organization you lead is made up of many people who look forward to getting back to work after navigating (and surviving!) a deadly virus last year. During that time, many have probably experienced relationship stress, including conflict over virus risks, vaccine safety, politics or financial strain. And they are now learning what it might take to move safely in a world that is perhaps less scary — but unfamiliar and restricted all the same. 

Meanwhile, school leaders across the country continue to face challenges that never existed before, from vaccination rates, masks and social distancing and expectations for air quality and cleaning practices, to a well-documented mental health crisis affecting young people at historic rates.

In “COVID-19 — school leadership in crisis?” published in the Journal of Professional Capital and Community, researcher Alma Harris contends that the long-practiced traditional school leadership model has widely been replaced by distributed leadership practice, which values capacity building over control. This relies on motivating people to engage, act and lead. 

“For the foreseeable future, school leaders will be dealing with issues arising from an unfolding and unpredictable set of complex situations,” she writes. “Therefore, self-care must be the number one priority for all leaders to ensure that they remain healthy and well enough to support others.”

A leader’s ability to support their team has never been more essential to organizational success. “Kindness, gratitude and empathy are now the leadership currency to get things done. Making reasonable demands on colleagues and having patience for others and self are imperative for those leading schools,” Harris concludes.

“Even as we begin to feel like life is more normal, the stress is still there,” says Katie Dorn MA, LSC, MFT. Dorn is co-founder of EmpowerU and an experienced licensed school counselor and therapist. “Leaders have a great opportunity to help the people on their team begin the journey from overwhelm and anxiety to a refreshed state of energy, motivation and inspiration. This happens when people are able to connect authentically with their coworkers and leaders and walk away feeling seen, heard and understood for what they’re feeling right now—which could change from day to day.”

With the strategic use of empathy in person, in writing and in spoken communications, being that leader is easier than it may seem at first glance.

Empathy and sympathy are not the same

The use of sympathy is nothing new. You’ve sent flowers or cards when a staff member is grieving, and you’re familiar with the sympathetic language to express care when another person is going through a difficult time. 

Empathy, on the other hand, creates a closer connection. Merriam-Webster tells us that empathy “differs from sympathy in carrying an implication of greater emotional distance. With empathy, you can imagine or understand how someone might feel, without necessarily having those feelings yourself.” 

And social scientist Brené Brown contrasts the two in a clear and relatable story framework.

What does empathy do for leaders?

Sympathy has its place in an organization, particularly when someone is going through a personal loss or other painful experience. But with intention, leaders can harness the power of empathy to move people and teams through difficult times, toward bigger goals.

How? By tapping into the human wiring that strives for connection. 

“Most people know how it feels when you share something big and painful with another person, only to feel like it was dismissed,” Dorn says. “At best, the other person offered an awkward expression of sympathy. But when empathy is used, the person struggling feels like they have been acknowledged and shown a higher level of care — and that creates connection and trust.”

Here are four ways to increase empathy in your day-to-day operation, with an intentional leadership focus.

Listen to employees

Leading with empathy means seeking to understand the genuine experience of your team members, from challenges and frustrations to mindset and morale. Empathetic listening can happen in a variety of settings, from personal conversations to small groups and even surveys. It requires getting out of your office and connecting with staff.

“Listening to another person’s story or experience can be challenging,” Dorn says. “Good listening is a skill that works a lot like muscles — the more you practice, the stronger that muscle gets, and the easier it feels.”

When you cultivate active listening skills, you become better able to connect (and remain connected) during a conversation. You’ll also be more ready to consider diverse points of view.

Get to know your team members

The teachers and staff who show up to serve your students also have personal lives that play a big role in who they are. They need their leaders to connect with them in the hallways and informal spaces, not just in the office or on a stage. Schedule time in your calendar to wander your buildings a bit to casually connect with members of the team. 

Be present and focus when they share comments about their spouse or partner, parents, kids or even friends. Retired Superintendent Mike Lovett used to carry 3×5 note cards in his pocket to jot down names and stories, so he could follow-up with personal notes to team members of supervisors. 

Gallup research has repeatedly found that employees who believe their manager or leader cares about them as a person perform better than those who don’t. A leader who takes an interest in the lives of team members is modeling the value of personal connection — and this helps foster that value in the larger organization.

Seek and consider other perspectives

People at the top of an organizational chart tend to see the best of the units and people that make up the organization. Leaders must find ways to seek perspective from others in order to understand where employee well-being is sufficient, and where improvement is needed.

Workplace expert, journalist and bestselling author of Unlocking Happiness at Work, Jennifer Moss recently shared in the Harvard Business Journal why the occasional How are you, how are you doing? is a flawed way to keep tabs on well-being. “One study found that on average an adult will say “I’m fine” 14 times a week, though only 19% of people really mean it,” she writes. “Almost a third of the 2,000 people in our survey said that they often lie about how they’re feeling. By paying closer attention to what your employees are talking about and seeing patterns, you can spot and head off problems.”

She suggests following up when people say they’re fine — “Are you really fine? It’s OK if you’re not. I’m here if you need to talk.” — to create room for a bigger conversation. 

Leaders also should find trusted advisors with a finger on the pulse of the broader employee experience across the entire org chart. Their insights will sometimes be surprising or challenging when they fall outside your own perception. Talk through these moments with a trusted teammate, and stoke your curiosity to find out more or think differently.

How to make empathy part of your leadership

As you prepare for the familiar back-to-school communications, from mass emails and newsletters to meetings and convocation events, challenge yourself (and your team) to find ways to name the challenges and emotions the audience might have struggled with over the last year. 

“A lot of people think, if I tell my staff I know we’re going through a hard time, it will only serve to make their hard time worse,” Dorn says. “The reality is, hearing a leader acknowledge things like stress, overwhelm, anxiety or uncertainty actually creates connections that build trust and help people move toward a calmer and more productive state of mind.”

The key is to avoid the urge to create a silver lining, or coat the uncomfortable with a sugary layer of positivity. This type of “look on the bright side” tactic falls flat and carries the power to erase much of the empathy you were aiming for in the first place.

Consider these types of phrases as you compose empathetic communication and scripts directed at staff:

  • We’ve been through a lot together over the last year, and I know it’s been hard.
  • I look forward to working together and hope this year will be easier for all of us.
  • If you’re feeling overwhelmed right now, you’re not alone. One day at a time, we are going to work together and get the year started. And if you’re struggling, please let me know.
  • If you’re anything like me, last year was tough. When I look back at all the uncertainty, stress and conflict in our community, I’m proud that we are all here today.

These types of empathy-driven techniques can help increase safety and connection with students’ families.

  • I know last year was challenging for students and families. We are looking forward to supporting your students and family this year, come what may.
  • After all we’ve been through over the last year and a half, it’s normal to have questions or concerns about how this year will look. Let me share a few details that might help.
  • Thank you for being so patient with us last year – I know it was challenging for many students and families, and I am thankful to have you here again.

No doubt, certain moments might call for a good, old-fashioned pep talk in the face of uncertainty, frustration or times of intense effort. But when you’re leading any group that’s been through all the things 2020 threw at us, empathetic communication gives you the power to connect your team and families by making them feel seen, heard and understood.

Published on: August 4, 2021