Many of us live in fear right now…the COVID-19 pandemic has spread to almost every continent with over three million confirmed cases worldwide, hundreds of thousands of deaths – one million cases of COVID-19 in the US alone and growing…the invisible killer with no known cure or vaccine. Many are asking “What can I do to stay safe? When will this end? Whom can I trust?” These anxious times call for a certain type of leader, not the hard-charging, take-no-prisoners, win at all costs leader. Rather, the leader we need for these times is the empathetic leader. One who slows down, who listens, who cares for employees and customers as individuals. One who is attuned to emotional cues from his team, and takes appropriate action to manage and moderate those emotions. Sound too touchy-feely? Here are some things I did to lead with empathy when Coronavirus was threatening to impact our business.

  1. Communicate: In mid-March, knowing that the team would be getting increasingly anxious and concerned about their safety and work situation in light of the coming pandemic, I arranged a weekly meeting with all BRI managers to check-in and share out any information and updates. Following each meeting (initially held in-person, now virtual), I send out an email to the whole team, updating everyone on any new developments and/or guidance on how to stay safe. In addition, I am checking in with each of my managers at various times throughout the week. Now, more than ever, people want to hear from their leaders and leaders need to listen to their people.
  2. Calm: When it appeared that COVID-19 could potentially disrupt production and business operations, I committed to our customers that we would continue to deliver product and to our team members that we would keep them on payroll, regardless of business circumstances. This message served to calm their concerns, knowing that we were doing our best to control what we could control.
  3. Connect:Just because teams are working remotely doesn’t mean they don’t need connection. Since we had several April birthdays to celebrate and new team members to welcome, yet were all safely socially distancing, I worked with my team to organize a virtual lunch – each team member ordered takeout from a local restaurant and everyone ate lunch in front of his or her computer, playing a rousing game of “Two Truths and a Lie” via Microsoft Teams. It was a fun way to keep connected, even though we weren’t all in the same room.

By leading with empathy, the leader gives permission and creates space for team members to show up authentically at work. Sometimes it’s not about having the right answer or having everything figured out. Sometimes it’s about making space for the grief, the anxiety and fear, as well as the joy and gratitude. When people on your team feel like they can bring their whole selves and what they’re feeling to work, it creates a sense of belonging and mutual trust. As Theodore Roosevelt once astutely observed, “people don’t care how much you know unless they know how much you care.” I can’t think of a time when an attitude of empathy and caring has been more important than such a time as this.