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Leading with empathy, cultivating resiliency

How leaders can lean into connection, adopt a growth mindset and overcome adversity

April 22, 2020 | By: Michelle Webb

man working from home at the dining room table with toddler in his lap, phone against ear and laptop opened.

Navigating the implications of the COVID-19 pandemic is unprecedented. Our first and foremost priorities are ensuring we’re supporting our employees, consultants and clients across the globe. As a full-stack technology and talent partner, we want to share our experience and offer support in how to alleviate the uncertainty around business continuity as many organizations shift to a primarily remote workforce for a period of time.

As a society, most of us are reacting to the current global pandemic by asking ourselves, what information can I pull from experiences I’ve been through before? Human nature tends to look for connections and past information to guide us on the next step. However, it’s OK to accept that none of us have never been through anything like this before. It is our first time, and we aren’t going to be great doing anything for the first time.

We’re all feeling fear, anxiety and a loss of normalcy. Many of us know someone who is connected to or directly affected by this disease. But it also goes beyond that—there’s loss of jobs or loss of the job you knew. Your employees may not recognize their current role and are having to show up in a way they’ve never experienced before. They might be grieving the loss of connection with people they care about or the loss of “freedom.” At a time with so much uncertainty, it’s critical to create an empathetic, safe space to help your employees cope.

Prioritize empathy and trust

As leaders, you’re trying to provide support and guidance to your people the best way you know how, but it’s not expected for you to have all the answers right now. What is expected is a tremendous amount of empathy and trust. Ultimately, the baseline for good leadership is leading with empathy—everyone is going through their own story:

  • Those who have lost loved ones due to this pandemic
  • Those whose partners are fighting every single day on the front lines
  • Those who are isolated by themselves
  • Those who are home with small children, demanding constant attention

These are just a few examples, and everyone will process these experiences in their own way, so it’s important to be an empathetic listener and show understanding to connect. Allowing employees to be vulnerable and feel heard will increase the way they feel supported, ultimately helping them stay healthy and productive.

As organizations move employees to a fully remote work environment, the number one currency is trust. To help create strong and trusting relationships, leaders need to practice empathy, listen and get really clear about expectations. Define with your employee what is expected, be clear about what each person is accountable for and embrace being agile to get things done. Ask employees, “How can I support you? What do you need in order to do your job effectively? Based on this conversation, what is your plan for the day/week?” After those expectations are set, leaders should trust that it will get done because the other option, micromanaging, will create more anxiety and harm. It’s important for leadership to check in, follow up and ensure that work is getting done and then continue to provide the support that people need.

Help people pivot to an anti-fragile, growth mindset

If you take a glass and drop it to the ground, it will shatter. This is fragility. If you take a plastic cup and drop it to the ground, will it shatter? Probably not. It will bounce. This is resilience; this is bouncing back.

Resilience is a great start, and in the case of the plastic cup, it’s the most we can ask for. Working with social psychologist and thought leader Jonathan Haidt on his work with “OpenMind,” we have come to understand that humans are not just resilient, they don’t just bounce back, they actually can become stronger through the struggle—this is being anti-fragile.

Leaders need to help their people do the same by reframing the situation we’re in to help move people toward an anti-fragile, growth mindset and open their perspective around what’s possible. If someone approaches you and they're truly hurting, feeling scared and having an emotional reaction, it’s important to acknowledge that feeling—allow them to talk about why they're feeling that way and share what's going on for them. However, letting them dwell in that mindset can become unproductive for them. It’s more beneficial for them if you move the conversation from that space to, “What can you do to move forward? What could create a more positive outcome for you in the situation? What are you learning in this time?”

As soon as people start to pivot to a growth mindset, they’ll feel a semblance of control for themselves. I believe everyone can be anti-fragile, and we typically have our biggest moment of learning, connection and growth when we overcome adversity after a period of struggle.

Create opportunities to connect

We’re all virtual, we're all working independently. It’s more important than ever to create opportunities to connect, whether that be through department meetings, small-meet team meetings, one on one or on a larger organizational scale. For example, our health and well-being program within TEKsystems held a webinar on “agile parenting” to help support parents who are currently struggling. We’ve also started a podcast called “Alone Together” to support our employees that are by themselves during social distancing. Sometimes people just need to connect and hear that others are in this with them to help them not feel so alone.

Ultimately, leaders need to show up with empathy and ask themselves how they can create connections during this time of disconnection in order to help their people identify the positives, learn and show up in a different way to be productive personally and professionally.

Michelle Webb is the executive director of employee experience at TEKsystems. She oversees strategic initiatives for developing, supporting and driving programs that support every employee at TEKsystems from the moment they first engage in the interview process until they decide to retire from TEKsystems and become alumni.