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Leading with Empathy in Difficult Times

Leading with Empathy in Difficult Times


If you’ve read my book, Lunch with Lucy, or any of my blogs already, you’ll know I believe that empathy—the ability to see a situation through the eyes of another—is a vital trait for business leaders to develop and to nurture in others. But during especially hard times, our “fight or flight” impulses can take over and we might tend toward self-preservation, creating a situation that makes it even harder for those around us.

What to do?

As a serial entrepreneur, I believe it is the absolute responsibility and privilege of business owners and leaders to put the needs of our employees before the needs of the customer, the shareholders, and ourselves. What does that look like in the days of COVID-19…coming close on the heels of devastating tornadoes in my hometown of Nashville, TN?

Now, more than ever, the number one thing you can do is LISTEN.

It is a basic human need to be heard, to have a voice, to matter…and your people need it now more than ever. Now that business has slowed (or come to a screeching halt for many of us), NOW, TODAY, take the time to listen to your employees. Will it be difficult? Probably. But you need to know the impact to them and their families and you need to hear it directly from them. Don’t do this via text or email. Pick up your phone and call them. Ask a few questions and then shut up and listen.

What might you hear? From some, you’ll hear that they are living paycheck to paycheck and they are terrified that you’re going to lay them off. Maybe for the first time, you’ll understand their living circumstances—stuff from which you insulated yourself before now. But you need to know. From others, you’ll be surprised at how resourceful they are, and you’ll see strength and fortitude that you never knew was there. How do I know this?

As I was growing LetterLogic (a company I built and grew to $40 Million before selling it in 2016), I reserved my Wednesday lunch time for something we called “Lunch with Lucy” where employees invited my alter-ego, Lucy, to lunch. They chose the restaurant and whomever else would be at the table. And then I learned about them, using this invaluable time to listen to them. I gained astonishing information during my regular discussions with them:

  • One, an immigrant from Mexico awaiting her citizenship, had worked hard, head down, and in just a few years’ time, had saved $50,000. Yeah, $50,000—much more than the Dave Ramsey suggested “six months of living expenses.” She lived very frugally, saving money to buy a home.
  • One had an expensive vehicle, a new home, all the stuff he wanted, but was one rainy day from being broke and having everything repossessed.
  • One who offered to work for free until such time as the company could afford him…just because he believed in our company culture.
  • One who consistently volunteered for any overtime work to pay for his annual trip to Ukraine to work with orphans.
  • One who was paid a six-figure salary but could never make ends meet.
Why did it matter that I knew these details of their lives?

Because it made it possible for me to put myself in their shoes, to see life from their eyes…and to use that empathic view to create policies that would ultimately make their lives better. It’s what caused me to go for 7 years without a raise myself, until I knew that THEY were all on a solid footing.

It might be tempting now to keep your distance from the folks you think you might need to lay off. You might be so wrapped up in fear and anxiety about your own future and the future of the company, that you don’t want to know about their pain. I urge you to take the opposite stance. They need to be heard and they need to hear from you!

But what can you say to them? What comfort can you provide?

You can tell them that this is a temporary situation. You can tell them that you are making adjustments everywhere to ensure the survival of the vehicle that feeds them, the company. You might have to tell them that they need to look for some outside work temporarily to weather this storm. If that is so, they need to know NOW so they can make the right changes. And then tell them the changes you are making.

That leads me to the second suggestion for empathic leadership in this time, TRANSPARENCY.

Transparency—allowing them to see under the hood—will help them develop empathy for YOUR situation and help them make better decisions that will enable to company to survive and flourish when this thing is over. It may be your natural inclination to want to protect them from the truth, to prevent them from worrying. But hiding from the truth doesn’t help anyone. In the dearth of concrete knowledge, people make assumptions, most of which will be wrong.

Without sharing the facts, your employees might be thinking:

  • She’s being selfish—she’s hoarding the money for her family while she’s reducing my hours.
  • The company is going to be bankrupt soon…I’ve got to find another job now.
  • The company has plenty of money…we just bought that new _______ a few weeks ago. We don’t have anything to worry about.

By showing employees how you are managing cash, it can inform their decisions at home too. If they’re like the majority of Americans who don’t have a budget and don’t do financial planning, the opportunity for them to learn from you can alter their lives forever—in a positive way. If they see that you are cutting out all non-essential expenses, that you are putting payroll ahead of everything else, they are learning. And when you make those cuts, they won’t be fearful that they’re next. They will have confidence in your ability to lead them through some dark times—knowing that you have a long-term vision. It will make them MORE confident in your leadership, not less.

When you talk to them honestly about the 2-3 things that must happen for the company to survive and THEIR part in those priorities, you’ll see them confidently moving to make those adjustments. Even if those adjustments mean temporarily reducing their work hours or wages.

When you use your innate empathy to lead, you’ll see your employees treat each other with more empathy. It is absolutely contagious! You’ll see them willing to sacrifice for the sake of others. And they’ll hunker down until such time as you are ready to kick back into high gear. They’ll SHOW you why they are the most valuable asset of your company and why they must come first.

Start today. Listen. Be Transparent. LEAD!  We’ve got this!