Leading Beyond the Grief
As I prepare to share this article, we are just two weeks from the terrible massacre at Colorado Springs’s Club Q. As families grieve the five who were killed by the gunman, and rally around the 18 who were injured in the shooting, questions linger about how violence against the LGBTQIA+ community continues in a country that claims to celebrate and safeguard diversity in all its forms. I’ll save that query for another day. Simultaneously, the end of Indigenous People’s Month is upon us, a time that calls upon all members of the human family to recognize the atrocities committed against those who lived on the North American continent long before European settlers claimed their manifest destiny. Surely November 2022 will be remembered as a heavy month for many, a time of grief and deep introspection. For those of us leading teams and organizations, the harsh November currents remind us that empathy is the greatest gift we can offer “our people” when the news is not positive, and the grief sets in.
In the 2022 article on The Power of Empathy in Leadership. Penn State’s Lauryn Ashley Bates-Stevenson noted, “Research has shown it is irrefutable that empathy is a critical factor to fostering a healthy workplace environment while also driving results.” Citing research that explores the connection between leadership empathy and organizational performance, Bates-Stevenson also notes that, “the level of empathy a leader has directly influences and increases the levels of the following factors – innovation, productivity, engagement, retention, inclusivity, and a healthy work-life balance.” In a time of crisis, or as November has cruelly reminded us, a time of violence, empathy at all levels of leadership shows members of the team that person who’s been tapped to lead is is deeply concerned about everyone’s personal wellbeing, not just their work performance.
Leadership in difficult times hinges on cognitive empathy and emotional empathy. Cognitive empathy calls upon the leader to put themselves in the employee’s shoes and try to imagine what the employee is thinking while they attempt to navigate the emerging crisis. How will I financially support my family if I am unable to work at this time? Emotional empathy has the leader imagining how the employee feels as the crisis persists. I feel powerless to help people right now because I feel so overwhelmed by my own stuff. The end of cognitive and emotional empathy is understanding. Often employees do not have the personal resources to endure a crisis in the same way a leader might. Empathy helps the leader better understand how the nuanced impacts of the crisis differ from person to person.
Of course, leadership calls for action beyond empathy. Kate Tuck of Strategic Leaders reminds us that, “Empathy in action is understanding an employee’s struggles and offering to help. It is appreciating a person’s point of view and engaging in a healthy debate that builds a better solution. It is considering a team member’s perspectives and making a new recommendation that helps achieve greater success.” Once the leader understands where their people “are” amid the crisis, it is vitally important to leverage the information gleaned from empathy to do some good for the people and the organization they serve. Right now, in my setting, action means a memorial for Club Q Five and intentional reflection time with the members of my team. Empathy enables action.
Be good to each other friends. Hold your LBTQIA+ loved ones close to your hearts as we navigate this treacherous time together. Practice empathy daily.