How Can We Lead with Compassion and Care while Dealing with Daily Pressures and Stress During a Crisis ?
Until recently, compassion and empathy were not considered essential leadership skills. Moreover, empathy does not come naturally to many of us, but learning and developing this ability is critical if we are to succeed, especially in times of crisis.
Fact is, several studies show that compassionate leaders outperform their non-compassionate counterparts, even in ordinary circumstances. Indeed, compassionate leadership has been the driving force behind many of the world's most innovative and forward-thinking brands. Take Microsoft, for example. Its CEO, Satya Nadella, has described empathy "central to the company's creativity and innovation agenda." Also, being a compassionate leader doesn't mean being "soft," but having the skills, vision, and dedication to build a supportive and collaborative culture in which employees thrive over the long run.
In their article Tuning In, Turning Outward: Cultivating Compassionate Leadership in A Crisis, Nielsen et al. argue that failure to deal with trauma and stress in a compassionate and mindful way may have disastrous consequences for organizations. According to them, “an organization mired in collective fear and focused on control will not unleash the creativity and innovation necessary to navigate a crisis and emerge healthy on the other side.”
Tuning in – discover and understand your feelings
During a crisis, a leader's natural response is to focus on maintaining control, restoring stability, and preventing further disruption.
At the same time, according to Nielsen et al, it is “essential to accept and acknowledge the reactive tendencies that unfold within ourselves and others, and to care for them.” Finding the time to turn inward and connect with ourselves is essential. Unless we recognize our own natural reaction to a crisis and process those strong emotions of fear and anxiety, we will not have the capacity to understand the reactions of others we seek to support.
Addressing people's concerns with compassion and care is essential to building a solid foundation for business recovery.
Turning outward to connect with others to help the organization move forward
As the crisis evolves, compassionate leadership entails bringing an organization together so that it can move forward in the following ways:
• Develop perspective and derive meaning
Organizations need to give a name to what they are experiencing before they can create meaning from it as they move on.
When people exhibit fear and a desire for protection and self-preservation, compassionate leaders name and validate those feelings as normal. It will help individuals make sense of their experience and move past pain, stress, and anxiety, and refocus on their work and the organization’s mission.
For example, during the 9/11 attack on the World Trade Centre, the NYC Fire Chief Joseph Pfeifer climbed on top of a firetruck and gathered his team around him. He asked them to remove their helmets, something that is only done at the end of a shift. He called for a moment of silence to acknowledge the loss of so many in the disaster. Then the team put their helmets back on and returned to saving more lives, more solidly aligned with their mission. This simple gesture gave voice to what they were all feeling and allowed the team to unite around their purpose.
• Foster belonging and inclusion to unify the organization
Feeling part of the same organization is especially important in crises. While people often feel that they are in the same storm as others they rarely feel that they are in the same boat. A true sense of inclusion, trust, and belonging among coworkers helps to lower stress and limits adverse physical symptoms while also boosting worker commitment and productivity.
For example, after the 2019 attacks on a mosque in Christchurch, New Zealand's Prime Minister, Jacinda Ardern, wore a hijab while comforting family members of victims. She chose to wear the outfit symbolizing the victims' religion, which sent a unifying message that all were part of the same community.
• Take care of people through compassionate acts
A compassionate leader cares about the basic needs of employees and supports them with practical measures, such as extended leave, extra sick days, etc. This will free up their ability to stay focused on productivity and contribute to the mission and strategic goals of the organization.
• Reimagine and plan together the organization’s path forward after the crisis
Actively engage in open dialogue with different stakeholders to get their perspective on the crisis and how to emerge from it to a new normal. This not only opens the door to collective sensemaking, but also reignites the creative energy of employees. The goal is to refocus people away from trauma and towards a better future for themselves and the company.
For example, after the 2007 Valentine's Day crisis at JetBlue, due to a snowstorm and Internet issues that stranded thousands of customers and employees, former CEO David Neeleman used the occasion to radically rethink the company's commercial strategy, including the launch of a customer bill of rights to advise and compensate passengers affected by delays and cancellations.
The disruptive effects of a crisis place leadership back at the core of its mission: making a positive difference in people's lives.
While crises require control and command, empathy, or "feeling with people”, is essential to negotiating a crisis successfully and emerging healthy on the other side of it. Empathetic leaders are making the vulnerable choice to tap into their own emotions to understand and engage in authentic dialogue with others to ease their fears, thereby allowing them to heal and thrive. Trust-based relationships are strengthened when people feel heard, understood, and supported, leading to greater loyalty, commitment, and performance. It' s not an easy goal to achieve, but it sets the stage for business recovery and success.
Finally, leading with compassion creates the conditions for greater creativity, problem solving and innovation to drive organizational growth – all keys to success in today's and tomorrow's workplace.