Why Compassionate Leadership at Work Matters More than Ever
Justine Frostad, VP of Marketing, Cognitiv
This has been an intense and eye opening two years for all of us (to say the least!). Collectively we’ve experienced a concentrated and ceaseless amount of heaviness. Adjusting to this new hybrid world at work while digesting everything else around us has definitely taken a toll on our collective mental wellbeing. According to the Kaiser Family Foundation, more than 30% of American adults have reported symptoms of anxiety or depression recently, up from around 10% before the pandemic. Adapting to a more permanent, new way of living and processing all that has happened is also skyrocketing stress levels across the board. Staying focused –let alone motivated – is an added challenge.
Modern managers now have an opportunity and a responsibility to encourage and actively support empathy at work. Leading with empathy not only improves employee engagement, but also supports a much wider and very important cultural shift towards destigmatizing mental health issues, encouraging more authenticity in the workplace. Here’s how managers can start actively engaging empathy to empower their teams and drive change.
Learn Your Team’s Professional Love Language
Once I became a manager, I learned quickly that my focus at work was no longer just me. Suddenly I had people who were, rightfully, looking to me for day-to-day guidance and a clearly marked path forward in their career. Beyond the to-do lists and performance reports, I’ve experienced firsthand that people are also looking for empathy that empowers them to excel at work and enjoy life. That might sound like a dramatic statement because, sure, some people simply go through the motions of their job so they can get home and tune that part of their life out, but I’d challenge any leader to make a greater effort to connect with anyone on their team showing signs of that approach to work.
The old “leave your personal life at the door” saying does not apply to the modern professional world. For one, we are all still living through a global pandemic and have barely begun to process the collective and individual trauma of that experience. That’s something, as people, we need to acknowledge in the workplace, and leaders can make sure that conversation feels safe and valid. When transitioning back to the office comfort levels with in-person engagement will likely vary and a one-size-fits all blanket policy is an outdated approach at this point. Having open conversations with your team members, ensuring their concerns and/or excitement are heard and respected deepens trust. Unless you work in an environment where being in-person is required to perform your job functions, flexibility can mean the difference between a happy, high-performing team and burnout followed-by attrition.
We all have unique emotional needs and communication styles. For example, not everyone wants to talk about what they’re going through, so understanding and clearly communicating company guidelines can empower your team to tap into accommodations and resources without feeling forced to justify or explain potentially sensitive feelings or situations.
It’s one thing to talk about the importance of open communication and another to actively listen to your employee’s needs. Of course, you should never push someone to share their personal situations or challenges with you. However, ideally your team members feel safe to approach you with a mental health issue.
Regular one-to-one meetings are great for checking in on the status of projects, but they are also valuable opportunities to listen. Ask questions that give people an opportunity to share how they are feeling, what level of energy they have to dedicate to work at the moment, and how you can help them feel engaged. Taking an interest in someone’s life helps establish a connection, deepens your understanding of what kind of environment motivates them and ultimately helps you better support your team.
Providing an opportunity to share or connect does not mean that they will choose to and that’s okay. Simply giving people the chance to express themselves and taking an interest is a form of support itself. Support also looks different for everyone. Someone might need advice on how to speak up in meetings to have their voice heard, while another person may be looking for tangible mental health resources, and someone else may want some extra support with a creative brainstorm because they are feeling uninspired.
Showing your team that you are prepared to listen to their challenges and collaborate on possible solutions rather than expecting them to operate totally independently invites open dialogue, stimulating healthy productivity and mentorship rather than fear-based management.
If you are unclear on the kind of support or motivation your team needs, play the tape back to them so to speak and ask for clarity on what sort of assistance they’re seeking. That way, you can either share relevant advice or point them in the direction of available company resources.
Set an Example
Prioritizing your own wellbeing and setting boundaries shows your employees that self-care is not just something listed on the company website but is an actively encouraged expectation. This means resisting the urge to send emails while out of office, taking time off when you’re sick instead of ‘powering through,’ or even scheduling breaks for lunch, emails, or mental health regularly on your calendar so that your open time isn’t assumed as an open invitation for back-to-back meetings. When you’re having a hard time, simply acknowledging it can also help. It doesn’t mean sharing beyond what you’re comfortable with; it just means being open that no matter what your level or position, we all struggle. When people in positions of relative power share their own difficult experiences or acknowledge that they are struggling, it has a butterfly effect, normalizing topics like mental health for the people around them.
Your actions will ultimately empower your team to express their own limits, care for themselves and invest in developing their own emotional intelligence (EQ). Being intentional with your approach to high EQ leadership and connecting with your team as people first will help you build a team culture that is trusting, supportive, genuine, and symbiotic.
Words communicate the kind of workplace you wish to create, and action makes that wish a reality. If people know you care at work, just like in life, they’ll view you as a trusted resource and guide, rather than purely a boss they have to report to.
When people know you have their back it naturally impacts their energy and the quality of their work. Have you ever had a teacher you felt really believed in you and wanted to help you hone a skill set? It’s usually those teachers who inspire you to want to do your best work and meet deadlines. There’s an earned respect from knowing someone is genuine in their efforts to help you grow and be successful. The same thing applies across professions and fields.
Being a true advocate in the workplace means focusing on tangible strategies to empower your team. Proactively keep your team informed about any programs, workshops, or new policies your company is implementing and make sure they understand how to access them. Also, encourage them to share feedback about those resources so that you can share that information with senior management to ensure that resources are constantly improving and are relevant to the needs of your colleagues.
If you tell a direct report that they have unlimited vacation or that you can accommodate a hybrid work model, make sure that you follow through on your word without layering on guilt-inducing conditions. If someone is asking for something that you aren’t sure you can deliver on, just be honest and open, offering to support them in brainstorming alternate solutions to make sure their needs are respected. Be impeccable with your word because that is the ultimate trust fall and once you break that bond it’s very difficult to build back credibility.
Strive to be the Leader You Need
More than 20% of people globally are reportedly struggling with anxiety and depression. If there was ever a time to work on practicing kindness and empathy, for your team and for yourself, it’s now.
Will you always get it right? Nope. But striving to lead as a person instead of a colleague is a start. Leading is learning and in the words of Maya Angelou: “when you know better, you do better.”
Here are some resources for anyone struggling personally, or looking to help someone who they think may be struggling:
American Counseling Association: https://www.counseling.org/knowledge-center/mental-health-resources/anxiety
American Psychiatric Association: https://www.psychiatry.org/
Anxiety and Depression Association of America: https://adaa.org/find-help/support/community-resources
National Alliance on Mental Illness: https://www.nami.org/Home
National Institute of Mental Health: https://www.nimh.nih.gov/