Let’s Talk: A conversation on leading with empathy

BY , Jill Lyons

There's no such thing as "back to normal" in this brave new world. This summer, what many thought would be the beginning of the post-pandemic workplace transition instead turned out to look very much like more of the same. Employers are delaying in-person start dates, parents face ongoing interruptions in childcare or in-person school, summer vacations did not end up quite the blissful relief we had hoped, and workers everywhere are burned out, stressed, and just plain tired.

With the post-pandemic workplace transition in limbo, what does it mean to lead with empathy in a not-so-post pandemic world? As part of our Let's Talk series, I sat down with Jill Lyons, EVP of Delivery at Hawkeye, to find out.

Laura: What do you mean by leading with empathy?

Jill: We all need space and grace. You cannot extend grace to someone else if you cannot find it within yourself. We have to operate from a place of assuming that everyone is doing the best they can. The foundation of what we want as humans is the ability to be heard. Isn't that what empathy is? As Oprah says, "Did you hear me, did you see me, did what I say matter?" As leaders, we can begin to cultivate this culture with our own vulnerability and openness. Setting this tone helps others feel comfortable sharing and being more of their authentic selves at work. For example, society expects mothers to work like they don't have children and parent like they don't have a job. We can work against these expectations by sharing more of our own personal challenges as moms—any of those moments where you stand in your truth help to move the needle in making things better for all. To sum it up, if leaders are vulnerable, it will make others in the organization feel comfortable doing the same.

Laura: Wait, let's back up. What is the difference between sympathy and empathy?

Jill: Sympathy is the predecessor to empathy. Imagine if you have a friend that has fallen down a well. Sympathy is saying I'm so sorry this is happening to you, thoughts and prayers, etc., that's sympathy. Standing at the top of the well and looking in. It's well-meaning, but you're observing. Empathy is going down in the well with them. The difference is you are identifying with the feeling that the person is actually going through. You might not have experienced the same thing, but you are pulling on your past experiences with that feeling—sadness, anger, grief, whatever that person is actually feeling. In the workplace, we are all feeling the same things—burnout, microaggressions, frustration, etc. It's so important for leadership to make that small tweak and react with empathy rather than sympathy.

Laura: We have started to see think pieces about "compassion fatigue." How can we guard against this phenomenon as the pandemic wears on?

Jill: Yes! Some might say we are all feeling compassion or empathy fatigue and organizations are ready to get back to business as normal. I recently heard, "everybody needs more right now than anyone can give." We need to let that sink in and take it to heart. Exercising empathy takes time and energy—it is emotional work to get down in the well with someone because you may be in your own well at the moment or helping someone else out of a well. When it comes to fatigue and giving what you can, put the oxygen mask on yourself first before helping other people. Sometimes you need to have the awareness of "I can't get down in that well right now," but you're still able to offer sympathy.

Laura: The oxygen mask analogy is spot on. What is your superpower when things get tough?

Jill: When we are going through a tough moment, we need to remember the only power that you ever have is in the present moment. There is always a next right move. Feelings have a beginning, middle, and an end. Burnout is being stuck in the middle when there feels like there is no light at the end of the tunnel. The power to get out of that feeling is in the present moment. Worrying about the future and holding on to the past will not get you out. The Power of Now by Eckhart Tolle is a powerful read on this.

Laura: Wow. I need to brush up on my Eckhart Tolle. What would you say is the "business case" for empathy?

Jill: Making meaningful connections is always good for business. We have an amazing opportunity as we redesign the workplace to design for empathy and inclusion. And to design actionable touchpoints for those connections to happen. Burn rate is not just about burning through hours and dollars. More importantly, are we burning through people and talent? Are we thinking about what our employees are going through on a personal level and considering that as we address their workload and expectations?

Maybe there are obstacles that you as a leader could help overcome or work around. Everyone is carrying around an invisible backpack, and you won't know what's in it unless you stop and ask. And for people to be able to share, they need to feel safe. It's important for leaders to create that safe space and check on their employees on a personal level regularly and connect. We need to remember, we are all human, and the want and need for connections is at our core. Another great quote, I heard from Stephen Covey, sums this up: "Empathy takes time, and efficiency is for things not people." 


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Laura B. Bacon


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