The importance of leading with empathy through a pandemic

People & Culture

Being in conversation with many business owners and employees over the last few days I believe there is one thing we all share on some level: uncertainty.

Some are uncertain about cashflow, some about health and some about the future. We all feel the impact of this pandemic differently and for different reasons. The irony is the differences can still unite us. By recognizing the differences, we can build empathy in our teams as we prepare for more certain times and a stronger future.

Not just what, but how

As with any change in business it starts with communication. We all have to determine what to communicate as it relates to the daily operations of the business. Much of this is reactive to policies and restrictions being put on us by government and health authorities.

But the way the information is disseminated requires its own strategy. How is the messaging going to be delivered to employees and how do we ensure that it is consistent regardless of who is sharing the information? A few easy suggestions:

  1. Form a committee to manage the flow of information from leadership team to departments.
  2. Communication within the department must have its own strategy.
  3. Create time and opportunity for employees to ask questions. The more structured the better as it will require employees to get their thoughts together before hand and stay focused on the topic.
  4. Whenever possible consider the lens the employees see through as being very different and position your message accordingly. Consider your message from where they sit and use messaging that they will relate to. In other words, don’t speak boardroom to production workers. Don’t speak theory or broad strategy to people who are task focused.

The empathetic leader

If you ever wondered why empathy needs to be practiced, our circumstances right now are why.

The value of empathetic leadership is not as noticeable when things are predictable and secure. The true value of empathetic leadership is it keeps a team tight and high functioning during uncertainty and high levels of stress. This requires a leader to be vulnerable and patient amidst the fear and panic you may see in response from employees. By being empathetic you will gain trust—the foundation a team stands on. The stronger the foundation, the more you can build. During these uncertain times the traits seen in empathetic leaders are:

  • Confidence while remaining vulnerable. Show your concern and understand your team’s concerns.
  • Unwavering support to a person’s individual circumstances while maintaining firm boundaries to keep alignment with the business objectives and values.
  • Show how to serve the best interest of each other and the company and more importantly acknowledge the efforts your employees make to do the same. Then, acknowledge again.
  • Listen to them. Maybe not directly but lead your team to be professional listeners. Find the root concerns or sources of stress and anxiety, then create your plan to address them (refer to above).

Ask good questions

As with most of you, I listen to the news constantly. With each new stat, new closure or limitation my next thought is—how will the employees manage this?

There is impact to everyone and the difficulty as a leader is the impact is relative. Your challenge is not only to run your business but to provide the direction and support to your team in a manner that keeps your focus on the direction of the business but doesn’t neglect the needs of your team.

At first glance it may feel impossible but when we dig into empathetic leadership it is really quite simple. Not easy, but simple. Ask good questions. If you aren’t asking them, get your team together and assign a spokesperson. Drill down, be humane and leave business out of it for just a second. Some basic drill down questions are:

  • How is the (school closure) going to impact your family?
  • How do you feel about working in isolation?
  • What is one thing that could help you feel better about the near term/long term?
  • How can we make things better for each other?

At first glance these may seem very soft and potentially inappropriate questions depending on your culture. But consider how inappropriate it would be to not relate on a level of basic human dignity. Whatever that looks like for your organization go there. Ask the questions that keep us connected through basic human dignity so people know (actually know) they matter.

Whether formally a leader or not, now is the time we all need to step into leadership with square shoulders. Speak from a place of confidence in our ability but show the uncertainty we all feel. Lead by example and have patience while people decide how to follow.

Last but not least, while managing the current state don’t forget to strategize how to best position yourself and your team for the future.

As a leader you must not only lead for today but give people a reason to want to follow by showing your vision is clear and sound and remain committed to that vision even when the road gets a bit bumpy.

Now what? Take action.

Bring together your dream team.

Create the strategy and plan the implementation over coming days, weeks and months.

Form and start your pandemic guiding coalition and have regularly (potentially twice a week) meetings.

Include regular, proactive communications and provide time and space for your leaders to have 1:1 meetings with everyone in the company.  Yes, we are in a reactive position but that does not mean you shouldn’t build proactive strategies into the current state.

Mostly, ask for help. We’re in this together. If you need any help with this, or someone to talk to about how to handle the tidal wave of stress and emotion, please reach out for a free call.

We all could use unconditional support and there is no time restriction to that. I’m here at any time day or night for you &/or your team.

Shannon Pearson


Shannon Pearson is a champion of culture and engagement at incrementa (un)consulting. She helps create high performance teams by connecting people to the organization’s DNA: it’s core values and purpose. Leveraging proven methodologies, she increases engagement and connection while reducing conflict.

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