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How you can lead with empathy during a crisis

Estimated reading time: 3 minutes

Covid-19 has suspended our world, disrupted routines in homes and workplaces, and led to a whirlwind of emotions for many people.
Fear of contracting the disease, coupled with curfews, lockdowns and quarantine, and their effects on daily schedules and workplaces, have produced various psychological effects. These include stress, depression, feelings of confusion, isolation and frustration.

People react differently to new stressful situations; some cope better than others. This has meant a greater need for empathy on the part of leaders to help those they lead cope better.

Empathy is the ability to understand other people’s conditions, thoughts and feelings from their viewpoint rather than your own. Albert Einstein said, ‘Empathy is patiently and sincerely seeing the world through the other person’s eyes.’ He added that it is not learned in school but is cultivated over a lifetime. This means that as a leader, you grow in empathy over time.

You can take some practical steps to learn to lead with empathy. These include learning to listen, making yourself vulnerable, and genuinely caring for others.


You must keep lines of communication open and listen to your team. Ask your employees how they are doing in group conversations and even one-on-one, and listen intently to the answers.

Genuine listening has been referred to as a rare gift – the gift of time. You, therefore, need to be present and not multi-task when your team members are speaking to you. You should abstain from interrupting and ask appropriate follow-up questions which demonstrate that you not only hear but do listen. Learn to pick out what they say and the undertones of what is left unsaid.
Listening is both an art and a science; the more you practice, the better you will get.

Make yourself vulnerable

One of the best things you can do for your employees – particularly during times of crisis – is to put yourself in their shoes. A March 2020 video message by Marriott International President and CEO Arne Sorenson gave an update to associates on the coronavirus crisis. It referred to the treatment he had been taking that went viral. He was not shy about making himself vulnerable. He acknowledged the negative impact of Covid-19 on the company’s earnings, his decision to not take a salary for the rest of the year – and his executive team taking a 50% cut in pay. Granted, you may not be in a position to take such drastic measures in your organization, but even seemingly smaller but genuine gestures like acknowledging some things you may have suffered or struggled with will make you more relatable to your team.

Genuinely care for your team

Think of practical ways of extending care to your employees. Be open to suggestions from your leadership team – and even those lower in the ranks. You cannot solve all their problems, but there are things you can do to ease the pressure and pain they may be going through during a time of crisis. In the Covid-19 situation, this may include special health cover benefits for a limited period or approving mental health support for them.

Empathy is about being concerned about the human being, not just about the output.” As a leader, show concern for your employees by listening, making yourself vulnerable and showing genuine care for them.

Simon Sinek

You may not be able to do much, but whatever you can do will go a long way in showing empathy.

What other steps would you add to the list above?

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