Which organisations are accustomed to operating during a crisis, and who can we look to at this time of unfolding global pandemic? Searching for this information, I came across the answer in the most surprising of places. The US army had my answer – yes, you read that right. The US Army Field Manual on Leader Development draws its content from the wisdom and experience of US Generals. And even more surprising is the key leadership trait they identify as being critical during a crisis, and it’s empathy.
Empathy does not instinctively seem like the backbone of leadership for a pandemic situation, and yet retired U.S. Army General Martin Dempsey asserted it to be absolutely critical during a crisis. He said “Effective Leaders have a sense of empathy. They listen. In listening they learn. In learning they become empathetic.”
Too often, we think of empathy as a soft skill rather than a hard skill. But empathy is indeed hard. It requires the patience to listen, respond appropriately to gain more information; and then to listen again to others to determine the whole picture. When you can do this at a helicopter level, you begin to understand whether you are connecting with people and if the decisions you are making and the actions you are taking are going to have the impact that you intend. When your actions hit the right note, you can inspire your team to strive forward, as well as earning their loyalty well beyond the current crisis.
Can empathy be learned? Yes. Whilst empathy is an innate human trait, some people are naturally gifted, some have too much empathy (which can be crippling) and others need to develop more empathy. If you have ever taken a Myers-Brigg Type Personality Inventory (MBTI), then you would be familiar with the Thinker-Feeler scale. “Thinking” types base their decisions on logical analysis and objective information. “Feeling” types base their decisions on personal values, harmony and empathy. If you don’t know which one you tend towards (and it is a spectrum) then answer this question – if you had to make five out of your ten team members redundant, then who would you choose? If you said you would keep the five top performers then you tend more towards the ‘thinker’ type. If you said you would individually approach each person first to see if anyone is in a position to volunteer for a redundancy, then you tend more towards a ‘feeling’ type. Research on personality type has shown that the more senior you are in an organisation, the more likely you are to be a ‘thinker’ than a ‘feeler’. Or, in other words, naturally empathic people are generally found lower down the organisation.
If you suspect you are falling more on the ‘thinker’ side of the continuum than the ‘feeler’ side, it might be a good opportunity to build your empathy skills. To do this, rather than viewing it as a ‘soft’ skill, shift your viewpoint to one of building empathy as a strategic leadership trait. Think of it as scanning large sets of data from people, and sorting out what’s noise and what’s essential information. Then before you act, ask yourself – what will be the impact of my action or decision on people? – Try to predict how others will feel about it. And if you have identified someone in your team who is naturally good at empathy, then you can ask them what they think the impact will be before you take the action. The ‘empaths’ in your team are vital bell-weathers for predicting reactions and stopping you from tripping up, especially if you give them explicit permission to bring what you have missed to your attention.
Another way to develop your empathy is to ask yourself – what is the moral or ethical thing to do here? – This idea comes from a study of students that were asked if they should study for an exam. They gave self-centred answers about studying for their own success, until they were asked if it was “moral or ethical to study for your exam?”. Then their responses broadened to their impact on their peers, families, study grants, educational institutions and even community resources. This extra question has the effect of enhancing your empathy, by expanding what you think about as the impact on people.
Empathy is going to be a hard thing to maintain through the COVID-19 pandemic. We’re all being disrupted, which leads naturally to focusing on what that means for you. When you’re ill yourself, or tired or stressed out, it’s hard to have empathy for others. But decisions and actions taken that show that an effort was made to understand and account for the impact on people will be remembered by your teams and employees. At the end of this pandemic, as the saying goes, it doesn’t matter what you do – it’s how you made people feel. Leaders that lack empathy at this time will be remembered and judged for it down the track. The empathic leaders that shine through the pandemic will be appreciated and inspire loyalty, following and trust. Now, at this time of global crisis, could also be the time for you to develop and practice empathy for your teams and people.