How To Promote A Culture Of Caring And Compassionate Leadership

Since the pandemic, employees have told us that empathy, trust, and a focus on wellbeing and culture building are the most important leadership skills in the new era of work. COVID-19 has redefined our approach to leadership, deemphasising technical skills and amplifying soft skills. So how can we help leaders to grow the skills of compassion and empathy to aid business recovery and be supportive to colleagues? 

Most employees have been working at home for months now. They’ve been wrestling with their internet connections and navigating their way through the day in a makeshift home office, possibly with the added complication of home educating children. While some have thrived in the new world of virtual work, others have struggled. Either way, employees need a new kind of empathic and compassionate leadership that’s been shaped by the COVID-19 crisis.

As we return to work, the mission for leaders is to keep people motivated, engaged and focussed on reengaging with business as usual activities, while acknowledging that many of us are still feeling the strain of current challenges. Skills like empathy and compassion are the keys to connecting to, and motivating, employees in troubled times. Although these are simple concepts, they represent a major change to the way we think about leadership.

What do employees want from their leaders?

First and foremost, UK employees want their managers to demonstrate a leadership style focussed on empathy and a supportive attitude (according to 81% of employees in our Resetting Normal research). 78% say that it’s important in the new world of work for leaders to focus on collaboration, problem solving and adaptability.

Leadership behaviours need to evolve because the things that are important to people in their life at work have changed since the pandemic too. Ranked highly (by over 70% of respondents), factors including being able to maintain a good work-life balance, feeling trusted to get the job done, having the right opportunities to maintain physical health, and feeling that the right support is available for mental wellbeing, are highly valued aspects of life at work post-pandemic.

Often, the skills required to provide reassurance, to demonstrate trust and to empathise with team members are not at the forefront of a leader’s style. Most leaders have risen through the ranks of their organisations by demonstrating a grasp of technical knowledge. Rarely are they assessed on whether they can relate to their employees on an emotional level. Emotional intelligence is the new standard for successful leaders.

The emotionally intelligent leader

Becoming an emotionally intelligent leader expands the role of leader to act more like a coach and sounding board. For employees who have been severely affected by the crisis we’re facing, leaders must be able to communicate genuine empathy about their concerns, and to demonstrate compassion rather than judgment. There needs to be a sense that it’s okay to talk openly about fears and anxieties, while also acknowledging that others are going through the same situation.

The expansion of the role and responsibilities of leaders in this direction is more important now than ever because of the impact of the multiple disruptors at work. The following steps will start the process of cultivating important emotional skills that will support employees and aid business recovery:

  • Take stock.Assess leaders to understand their current leadership profile and where their soft skills can be developed. Every organisation has naturally empathetic and compassionate leaders. However, there will also be leaders for whom these skills do not come naturally.
  • Reskill. Most progressive business leaders know that they must be constantly learning and refreshing their knowledge. To keep their skills up to date, including leadership skills, leaders need to invest time into developing an empathic and compassionate leadership style.
  • Don’t go it alone.One of the most effective ways at building soft leadership skills is working with a coach. Coaching will not only help leaders confront their own shortcomings, but it can accelerate and help sustain the cultivation of empathy and compassion.

Of course, leadership is still a role that requires toughness and resilience. Leaders must set high expectations for the people they lead and be willing to call out underperformance when necessary. But they must also know when someone needs understanding, care and support. It may seem like a simple solution, but sometimes people need to know that it’s okay to feel whatever they’re feeling right now before they can start to feel good about the future.