Becoming An Empathetic Leader Is An Inside Job: Here’s Why

Dr. Marta Ra is the co-founder of the international network Women in Sustainable Finance (WISF).

The pandemic has ushered in a workplace revolution. With the Great Resignation well underway, executives are being pushed to adapt. Survival of the fittest now demands compassionate leaders capable of helping their team deal with fear, grief and loss.

As burnout rates soar, empathetic leadership—the idea of leading with vulnerability and compassion—has become a boardroom necessity. If nothing else, the research is unequivocal; companies that focus on fostering trust, safety and support see productivity skyrocket and work-related mental health issues such as burnout decrease.

Yet, what is always lost in our conversation is the fact C-suite executives are often as eager to create that positive change as their employees. It is painful to think that we are the reason our team, whom we cared for and believed in, is suffering from burnout or anxiety. And yet, so many of us bury our heads in the sand and avoid the topic. Worse, we introduce half-hearted measures that our employees perceive as disingenuous. So, if we want it as much as our team does, why do we find it so hard to create a concrete plan of action?

1. Leading with vulnerability is uncomfortable.

Simply put, empathetic leadership is about breaking down power structures and fostering a sense of community between you and your employees. Psychologically, this means shifting the dynamics from a place of fear and authority to one of safety and security. However, while this sounds great in theory, the reality is much more complicated and uncomfortable.

First, opening yourself up to others is uncomfortable, regardless of whether it is in a professional or private context. Sharing your concerns puts you in touch with a host of difficult emotions and invites others into your inner world. In other words, it means you open yourself up to rejection. Then, when you consider the fact that imposter syndrome is one of the most rampant mental health conditions among C-suite executives, you begin to understand why the idea of showing others your insecurities feels so terrifying.

To navigate this, ask yourself, “How many times have I succeeded because I did something that was outside my comfort zone?” As a starting point, try to familiarize yourself with how vulnerability feels. Ask yourself: “What am I afraid of? What situations can hurt me? Were there any experiences in my past that led me to fear these emotions or experiences?” Ideally, try to then share these concerns and conduct this exercise with your team.

2. Empathetic leadership won’t feel intuitive.

Second, many of us climbed to the top of our industries at a time when ideas such as “leave your personal life at the door” were paramount to our success. We worked relentless hours, and we achieved what we have because we acted as though we were okay, even when we weren’t.

Although we should—in some respects—be proud of ourselves for achieving what we have, given the environments we were in, it also means that vulnerability in the workplace will feel wrong to us and we need to work against that intuition.

For you to truly end the cult of the leader and create the change you want to see, it requires a lot of honest self-reflection, which is uncomfortable and challenging. Then, it requires leading by example and following through with those counterintuitive acts, such as creating boundaries, prioritizing self-care and taking the time to ask your team about their personal lives.

3. Empathetic leadership means nothing without a mental health agenda.

Third, trying to incorporate empathetic leadership ideals into your company without creating a mental health agenda is like telling your team that you care about their physical health while only serving them beer and burgers. It simply doesn’t hold, and one of the biggest hurdles C-suite executives face right now in their pursuit of empathetic leadership is this lack of mental health knowledge.

For example, imagine that someone on your team is struggling with depression. If you are an empathetic leader who has educated yourself on mental health, you will not only know that they are struggling, but you will also know that one of the most painful symptoms of depression is unrelenting fatigue. If that person then misses a deadline or forgets a meeting because of it, you can respond to that “mistake” with compassion. Otherwise, you might be inclined to perceive it as laziness or indifference, which would only exacerbate that employee’s suffering.

Try to familiarize yourself with signs of depression, anxiety, burnout and addiction. Of course, employers are not psychologists, and they shouldn’t try to adopt a counselor-in-chief role. Instead, it’s about knowing the basics. Think of it like how most of us know the signs and symptoms of common physical health issues.

To conclude, remember that empathetic leadership does not mean unconditional tolerance. The greatest leaders throughout history have always had a vision and a set of concise goals. However, they use their wisdom and compassion to inspire others to work toward those ideals. When we do this, there will always be elements of vulnerability and altruism in our actions.

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