Resilience Mastery: Leading with Empathy & Vulnerability

Sheetal Arora
4 mins
September 1, 2020

Times have changed! Well, that sentence is now clichéd. While, yes, remote work is often a very nice perk and can even improve productivity, it has a dark side. The landscape scale & overwhelming speed of this crisis has resulted in a high degree of uncertainty, a feeling of lost control, and strong emotional disturbance in teams, as well as leaders. People start to feel disconnected from the rest of the world, trapped in a bubble, leaning towards existential crisis, pondering over their inability to manage work and home with the diminishing line of distinction. What leaders need during this crisis is not a predefined response plan but behaviors and mindsets that will prevent their teams to ponder over the loss, uncertainties and help them look ahead.

Organizations around the world are researching & experimenting with creative solutions for leaders to help their teams over come these issues and develop resilience. The massive scale of the outbreak and its sheer unpredictability make it challenging for executives to respond. But it is critical to develop resilience mastery during these times and see failures as temporary setbacks. When faced with ambiguity, a leader must maintain a positive attitude and a strong sense of opportunity. Studies have indicated the importance of resilience, both for individual and leaders. I believe that the resilience you demonstrate is directly proportional to the resilience your teams can develop. So, what can you do to keep your people engaged, included & resilient? In my opinion, there are 3 things that can help.

Demonstrate Empathy

As Leaders, you must demonstrate deep empathy, pay close attention to how people are struggling and take corresponding measures to support them.

You do not need to dive in and solve for everything, nor assume that is what is wanted – but you do need to show that you are truly listening.

Listening really touches people under immense stress.

By being empathetic, you as a Leader, play an important role in safeguarding the mental health of your team members; but it is equally important to safeguard your own.

Find mental elasticity within yourself so that you can hold other people’s fear & anxieties but not hold on to it.

Ultimately empathy is to show up and listen intently – ensure that it does not impact your well being.

In a fast-growing organization, a CEO incorporated a check-in round in the weekly team meetings. Individuals share a small status update – not about work but about themselves! They share their current challenges, their hacks to overcome those challenges, what do they miss about being at work. Individuals talk about all sorts of things – kids not going to school, inability to go outdoors, being stuck with chores, the relatives/friends stuck in other countries/cities, family members who are at a high risk. They talk about how they had a great conversation with their child today and that they are feeling extra jazzed about life. This time is the individual’s time. It is not a discussion, and the individual chooses what and how much to share. By listening to the emotions and feelings of the people, each member of the group develops an increased awareness of others’ mental state, leading to increased empathy both during the meeting and outside of it. It is an opportunity to pause, reflect & even take charge of their situation. A word of caution though, such check-ins should not go round the table. Individuals should not feel pressured to share their vulnerabilities. Once they see the value of sharing, they will start to open. You must figure out what fits your team’s vibe and personality.

Create Psychological Safe Spaces

You must provide a safe space for your employees to be their full selves. Now that we are at home, people cannot be expected, not to bring the personal self to work. People must know that they can be free enough, sometimes, to share the things that scare them without fear of being judged. Allow team members to disagree and have a point of view different from the usual.

When people feel psychologically safe - Oxytocin levels in the brains rise, eliciting trust.

Interestingly, trust is also identified in Google’s Project Aristotle as a key requirement for the perfect team. This plays a big role in creating a sense of belongingness; helps one overcome the sense of loss & isolation; & gives people an improved ability to handle difficult situations.

In a conversation with a senior leader, I came across an interesting way she nurtured psychological safety in her BU. She wanted to ensure that the team members felt confident, they do not feel embarrassed about admitting a mistake, asking a silly question, or offering an obvious idea. She created a ritual around it. Managers in the BU were assigned projects that they were supposed to drive. These projects were around optimization, automation, customer experience & cross-functional collaboration. In a monthly cadence, 2 hours were blocked for project discussions. Project teams present their findings, learnings & recommendations. Questions, ideas & feedback are encouraged and handled with utmost respect and patience. The participants have healthy debates. This ritual kicked off about 6 months ago and the changes are evident. The team is more collaborative, accountable, elicits trust and is open to giving/receiving.

Show your vulnerability as a Leader

Creating a safe environment for your team to speak up starts with showing vulnerability as a leader. For instance, admit it when you are struggling with something. That will give others permission to admit where they are struggling too. When an employee points out a mistake, thank them for being forthcoming and commend their honesty. By doing that, you reinforce that you appreciate the truth.

"Vulnerability is the core, the heart, the center, of meaningful human experience." says Brené Brown in her book, Daring Greatly.

Personally, I think this is a fascinating time for Leaders – more so for those who wish to develop the acumen of Leadership!

If you take a moment to consciously pause and reflect on what you are leading through, you will realize how much you are learning about others, about yourself and about leadership.

Too often this learning is lost in the crisis and sometimes analysed afterwards. Take the time to pause, reflect & analyse it now – possibly with a colleague you trust, or with your coach. Can you do anything differently now because of what you are learning in a fast-changing workplace; or should we say a ‘changed’ landscape!

Stay Empathetic, Stay Connected, Stay Resilient!

References:

https://www.dalecarnegie.com/en/resources/developing-a-resilient-workforce-how-organizations-thrive-in-the-face-of-adversity

https://workingwithresilience.com.au/wp-content/uploads/2018/09/Whitepaper-Sept18.pdf

https://bmcpsychiatry.biomedcentral.com/articles/10.1186/1471-244X-14-131

https://hbr.org/2017/08/high-performing-teams-need-psychological-safety-heres-how-to-create-it