Leading During Uncertain Times: The Rising Importance Of Empathy

Leading During Uncertain Times: The Rising Importance Of Empathy
B&T Magazine
Edited by B&T Magazine
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In this guest post, Gabrielle Cichero (main photo) – senior director of marketing, Asia Pacific, at tech company, Cloudera – emphasises the importance of leaders’ adopting a more empathetic approach if they wish to thrive in the unpredictable contemporary environment.

We’re currently witnessing one of the greatest shifts in workplace culture in history. The ‘control and command’ leadership approach born after World War II is fading as more leaders’ march to a new ‘heart’ beat using the power of ‘soft skills’ to keep step with employee needs and drivers of today.

McKinsey Global Institute finds that the number of people in the global labour force will reach 3.5 billion by 2030. This, combined with the mass move to remote work, is resulting in workplaces needing to accommodate a changing range of skills, attitudes, cultures, and behaviours.

I’ve been lucky enough to have led APAC-wide teams for several years and have seen shifts in leadership even prior to COVID-19. It’s easy to only consider globalisation, but we’re also working across different generations – a 20-year-old digital native in India is very different from a 60 year old in India who started their career before the internet was born.

For a leader to thrive in today’s environment, they must be willing to exhibit and value core qualities of empathy, trust, and curiosity. When we’re able to truly make the most of a diverse team, when we’re more open to new ideas, we can significantly improve the employee experience and make the entire organisation stronger.

Soft skills: Empathy, trust, and curiosity

In the past, being a team leader or manager was about command and control. It was about being able to do every part of the job better than anyone and knowing every part of it. Today, a true leader is one that helps employees discover untapped strengths and potential and can bring that into alignment with business goals. It’s about being very clear about what the destination is and understanding that everyone’s path to getting there may be different.

Empathy has never been more relevant than in the last two years. Whereas sympathy is ‘I feel sorry for you’, empathy is ‘I understand you’. It’s not about being nice, it’s about taking the time to fully be with the person you’re with and truly listening to them. Doing so can dramatically change how people relate to each other – building trust and enjoyment in their working environment. Within my work I’ve also seen the power of not only having an empathetic leadership style but encouraging this mode of relatedness between people. I’d go as far as to say that today, soft skills can spell the difference between success and failure between workers and their employer, and in the time of the great resignation that impact is critical.

And that’s why more businesses are recognising the role of empathy in the workplace. A whitepaper by the Centre of Creative Leadership, based on a global survey, found that empathy is positively correlated to job performance. Managers who show more empathy toward their teams are viewed as better performers in their job by their bosses. Additionally, empathic emotion, as rated from employees, positively predicts job performance ratings from the leader’s boss.

This whitepaper also highlighted a fact that I’ve found to be true in my own experience: that empathy can be learned. Leaders can develop and enhance their skills in this space through coaching, training, or developmental opportunities and initiatives. Self-awareness is critical to this development.

Grant Thornton’s 2021 International Business Report research highlights the emergence of empathy as a valued leadership trait. Among mid-market business leaders who grew their staff numbers by at least 5% in 2020, empathy was more consistently important than the global average, with 25% citing it as a key leadership skill. It also scored well with those who grew exports and revenues during the height of the pandemic. For the APAC region, 21% of respondents cited empathy as one of the most important traits in leaders.

It would be remiss not to mention other core qualities that I feel are hugely important as a leader: trust and curiosity. Curiosity in a leader helps you to understand your team, to ask the right questions and always be engaged in critical thinking. When it comes to trust you need to be as open as you can, even if you can’t share everything. When you trust people, they trust you back. When you’re accountable, your people are more likely to reciprocate and be accountable right back. Give them control, celebrate achievement and balance being confident and vulnerable.

Empathy in action: An insight into Cloudera

My team was already working remotely prior to COVID-19 so we didn’t experience a dramatic shift in this respect once the virus hit but everyone has been impacted in very personal and real ways. At Cloudera we operate on the basis that people are the heart of our company and are always investing in ways to make our teams feel valued and heard. This became even more critical during the height of the pandemic.

Engaging in empathetic leadership can consist of simple practises. For instance, it can be actively listening when on a video call, with the camera turned on and minimising potential distractions. It can be as simple as reaching out over Slack or Instant Messenger to check in. It can be taking the time to remember and acknowledge celebrations or milestones – whether that’s a birthday, a child’s birthday, work anniversary or the anniversary of a loved one passing. During lockdowns finding reasons to celebrate certainly helped to lift the spirits of those around us at Cloudera.

We also frequently underestimate the role of technology in aiding our leaders to be more tuned in and empathetic. For example, data is helping both Cloudera and our customers to create better, healthier and more open relationships with employees.

One of our customers, Indonesia’s Bank Mandiri uses data to track employee health. The bank used its data lake to feed a real-time dashboard that tracked employee health which led to better support for employees. With information on staff working locations and health status across all branches and regions, the bank was able to ensure employee safety as well as business continuity. Of course, this highlights a more physical health perspective, but it accentuates how data can be used to build greater understanding of how employees are doing. This lends itself to establishing or extending health and wellbeing initiatives, or even simply, opening conversations.

Goal setting in a pandemic

We’ve also found that during the last two years it’s been easier to lose track of goals. At Cloudera we’ve become much better at setting and tracking both personal and shared business goals. We’ll talk to our people and ask them what their plans are for the future, where they want to be in the coming year or two and what matters to them in their work. We can then align this to the broader business goals to empower our workforce. Goal setting is one way we deliberately build gratitude and a sense of service within the team and have that human touch and conversation.

At Cloudera we’re also big on leading by example. Acknowledging failure is not a core part of many Asian cultures, so as a leader in the APAC region, it’s important to recognise failure and learnings in an honest way and create a safe place to do so, especially when encouraging innovation. Another example is committing to ‘unplugged days’ where my fellow managers and I leave our computers and phones off to take time for ourselves. We actively encourage our team to do the same. Within our leadership team, we’re always focused on exhibiting empathy, curiosity, trust and vulnerability to create a powerful reference point for our teams.

Conclusion

With more people experiencing personal hardship, mental health issues, ambiguity and reconsidering their life, this year requires more leaders to step up and become a mentor, guide and inspiration to those around them. We do this by being honest and vulnerable ourselves and living core qualities and soft skills through key touchpoints. We will be able to move through this time and engage in growth and innovation by putting people first and being delighted by the rich rewards.

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