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Bring Empathy to Your Leadership Practices

Learning Objectives 

After completing this unit, you’ll be able to:

  • Explain why it’s important to recognize that each team member’s circumstances are unique.
  • Design everyday practices that support your team during times of crisis.
  • Help your team members focus on their most important responsibilities.

Leading in Challenging Times

All over the world, our everyday realities have changed dramatically because of COVID-19. If you manage a team or have a leadership role in your organization, your job is rapidly being transformed. 

It’s challenging to help your team adjust to working from home if you usually work in an office setting, physically close to your colleagues. Even if you already had experience managing work-from-home employees, you face new demands and pressures during this pandemic. Anxiety is running high, and uncertainty about what the future holds can make it difficult to chart a path with confidence. 

As a leader, you have an opportunity to lead with empathy. When you bring empathy to your leadership practices, you reassure your team, help them build resilience, and keep them focused on what matters most now.

This module is meant to give you actionable tips and guidance for navigating this new normal and balancing work and home life effectively.  (You can find templates for some of the activities in the downloadable Empathetic Leadership Pack in the Resources section.) While there are commonalities in our experiences, each individual is experiencing this pandemic in unique ways. In practice, that means that the strategies outlined here may not work for everyone. As with any guidance, take what works for you, and leave the rest. 

Specifically, you’ll learn: 

  • How to adapt and transform your daily leadership practices.
  • How to communicate with empathy.
  • How to foster strong connections within your team.
  • How to extend empathy to yourself.

Let’s start with transforming your leadership practices.

Remember, Each Person’s Situation Is Unique

Whether you lead a team of 2 or 200, you know that every one of your team members has a unique story. That’s especially true now, when changes like stay-at-home orders and new safety protocols are disrupting our daily activities. 

Some of your direct reports may be trying to balance work with new family obligations. Others may belong to a high-risk group and are taking extra precautions to protect their health. Still others may be struggling with emotions like anxiety and loneliness, or an inability to focus. 

You should never adopt a one-size-fits-all approach to leadership, and it’s especially important now to understand what each team member needs and how you can best support them. Take a look at some examples.

Situation How You Can Support
Your team member has kids at home, and he manages their education during the day.
  • Help him identify the highest-priority work.
  • Cancel or reschedule other projects.
  • If you can, revisit his work schedule and make common-sense adjustments.
Your team member has some extra time on her hands, and staying busy makes her feel focused.
  • Review her workload to see if she can contribute to key projects or cover for teammates who need extra help now.
  • Share training resources for learning a new skill.
  • Remind her to take time to rest and recharge.
Your team member isn’t feeling well, but she’s worried about an important deliverable.
  • Be clear that her health is the number-one priority.
  • Reassure her that you can find someone to cover her project.
  • Ask her to focus on taking care of herself, not work.

How do you find out what each person on your team is going through and what they need? At Salesforce, we hold regular one-on-one meetings (1:1s): scheduled, informal meetings between manager and team member. These meetings can be virtual, of course. Just use a video conferencing tool, and be sure to turn your camera on so you can see each other. The next section gives some more tips for creating a deeper connection with your team members during your 1:1s.

Make Your 1:1s Meaningful

1:1 meetings give you the opportunity to learn what challenges your direct reports are facing, as well as what motivates and inspires them. And holding regular 1:1s shows your team that you’re invested in them, their goals, and their success. They’re more likely to feel engaged, be productive, and be confident that they can overcome obstacles.

A manager and direct report in a virtual one-on-one meeting

If you don’t already meet one-on-one with your direct reports, now’s the time to start. And if you do, reaffirm your commitment to the practice. During a crisis, sharing your time, attention, and willingness to provide support lets your team know you care.

Adopt these practices to make your 1:1s meaningful.

  • Honor your 1:1s. If you must cancel a meeting, reschedule it for another day the same week.
  • Turn your camera on (sometimes). Show how you look and where you are, and encourage your team member to do the same. But be aware of video meeting overload. Attending video calls can create physical and mental fatigue, so give your team members and yourself permission to turn the camera off when one of you needs a break.
  • Be present. Give the conversation your full attention. Practice active listening: make a conscious decision to listen to and understand what your team member is saying, and show your engagement by maintaining eye contact, nodding and smiling, and responding to reflect on or clarify the message.
  • Connect on a personal level. Take your time. Have authentic, human conversations with your team members, and share some of your own challenges to show them that we’re all in this together.
  • Ask specific questions. Your goal right now is to find out if your team member is overworked or is working on something that is no longer a priority. For example:
    • How are you doing right now?
    • Given recent events, do you need to adjust your schedule?
    • How many hours are you working each day?
    • What are you working on this week?
    • What support do you need from me at this time?
  • Share resources. Encourage your team to take advantage of programs and benefits that can assist them, such as wellness benefits, free online fitness classes, or paid-time-off policies.

What about coaching and feedback? Your direct reports still need you to give them feedback on their performance and coaching to help them get the job done. Learn more in the Coaching & Feedback module here on Trailhead. 

Help Your Team Focus on What Matters Now

During times of change, we have to be flexible and adapt. Take another look at the plans you made with your team before this crisis began. Are the priorities you identified still the right ones? Are the timelines you set still achievable? 

If you use an organizational alignment tool like the V2MOM, now’s the time to revisit it. Create a new team vision for how you’ll respond to recent changes. Once you clarify your vision, you can adjust targets, capture new work that has emerged, cancel work that isn’t essential, and identify obstacles. 

Help each of your team members understand what to focus on and what to let go. In your 1:1s, review their list of projects and responsibilities. Be explicit about which items on the list are top priority, and give them permission to postpone or scale back everything else. 

Prioritize Your Team’s Tasks Effectively

It’s not always straightforward to prioritize your team’s work. Try using a prioritization matrix to balance day-to-day demands and long-term initiatives, while keeping in mind workload, deadlines, and the perceived importance of each action item.

A matrix for categorizing tasks as urgent or less urgent on one axis and important or less important on the other, creating four categories: do first, schedule, delegate, and don’t do

Sort tasks into one of four buckets (do first, schedule, delegate, and don’t do) based on importance and urgency to help you identify what your team should do first, what they can do later, what they can delegate, and what they don’t need to do at all.

Be strict when you’re sorting tasks—if you’re putting too many tasks in the do first quadrant, you may not be prioritizing effectively.

Reallocate with Empathy

As you adjust your goals, you may need to temporarily—or even permanently—reassign team members to work on them. In some cases, you may give team members new responsibilities or tasks. In other cases, you may need to move someone into a new role. 

Change can be stressful or frightening, particularly for people taking on a different role. You can support your team members through the transition. Listen to their concerns and help them get training to reskill and handle new job functions. If possible, pair them with an onboarding buddy who can share knowledge and help them settle in. 

Although unexpected changes like these can be nerve-wracking, they can also present opportunities for your team to learn and grow, and for team members to discover their capacity for resilience.

Support Your Team’s Professional Development

We just talked about how business needs may dictate changes to your org structure, and how you might need to reassign team members to new jobs. Even if you have to do that to keep the lights on, you're still invested in your team’s professional development, and you can still coach them to define, plan, and work toward specific long-term goals. As your business changes, help your team members understand the landscape and reskill to meet new opportunities. Point them toward that sweet spot where their strengths and interests overlap with business needs.

Career development sweet spot at the intersection of strengths, career interests, and business needs

Employees who feel that they can develop their careers in your organization are more motivated and engaged, and more likely to stay with you. Now more than ever, organizations need a skilled, flexible workforce to respond to a rapidly changing environment. 

Hold regular career conversations with each person on your team, where you discuss their goals and develop an action plan. The plan might include stretch assignments, job shadowing or networking, or training. Make a point to check in later on how the action plan is going.  

These are just a few ways you can express empathy through your everyday leadership activities. Up next, we review ways to communicate with empathy to your team.

Resources