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How To Be an Empathetic Leader in a Time of Uncertainty
In conversation with BetterUp Coach Tess Brigham, a therapist and coach who specializes in guiding people through times of transition.
As a leader, you’ll be faced with situations that feel deeply unsettling, uncomfortable, and uncertain. You’ll feel like all eyes are on you, and everyone on your team is waiting for answers and guidance. And to some extent, your team is watching you — but how you lead in these times doesn’t come down to knowing exactly what to do.
As a coach, my job is to give people the tools to navigate difficult situations — not give them the “right answer.”
And so, I tell leaders: get curious, get out of your ego, and stop worrying about how you’ll be perceived in these difficult times. Your people need you. Let’s walk through three practical ways you can shift your worldview, help your teammates get unstuck, and stop operating from a place of fear.
Uncertain times are often closely related to feelings of disappointment: things aren’t going the way you thought they would. How do you deal with unpredictability and feeling out of control? Leaders mistakenly assume that they can somehow control future outcomes, when the only reality they have is now.
I tell my clients that when you’re feeling something, no matter what the feeling is, you have the right to feel it. You can remain unsteady: sit with it.
By not allowing ourselves to grieve the disappointment of loss, we become paralyzed by the notion that there’s nothing we can do.
In our culture, it’s common to want to immediately go in and solve things but the truth is there are times when we’ll have feelings we can’t change or outcomes we can’t predict. By not allowing ourselves to grieve the disappointment of loss, we become paralyzed by the notion that there’s nothing we can do. And by focusing too much on identifying an immediate solution to the problem, we lose sight of what’s most important in these uncertain times: to be there for the people who need us most.
Mindfulness research suggests that the mind has an “innate ability to be present,” and we can shape how we react to situations that feel deeply upsetting or uncontrollable. While we can’t control the future, mindfulness teaches leaders that they can inspire the people who work with them by being more present, available, and vulnerable.
I always remind my clients that great leaders don’t have to have all the answers. Great leaders don’t need to know what to do in uncertain times. So whether it’s figuring out how to communicate around a national disaster, articulate the effect of mass layoffs, or explain financial losses, I always urge leaders to not pretend things aren’t happening. Instead, I ask them, “What is within your control and what is out of your control?” From there, I tell them to ask themselves:
- What is it that I can do?
- How do I think globally and act locally?
- What can I do in my everyday life?
- Where can I channel my time and attention?
Our natural tendency is to try to optimize for BIG impact. But it’s the small things that we do every day that really make the larger impact on our community.
So much of leadership in uncertain times comes down to consciously showing up and controlling the things you can control: being more mindful of people around you, being more loving to your family, etc.
A great leader doesn’t make a decision for their teammates, but rather gives them the tools they need to make decisions for themselves.
If you’re in a leadership position, your job is to empower the people around you. So how do you practically do that when everyone is walking on shaky ground?
Show your humanity.
Dr. Brené Brown, a research professor who has spent years studying vulnerability, told Forbes, “Most of us don’t trust perfect and that’s a good instinct.” People want their leaders to be vulnerable — to show up as who they are. Approach your teammates from a place of empathy, openness, and vulnerability by asking questions. You know your company culture: transparency means doing different things to different people. But as long as it’s authentic, people will be receptive. Asking questions shows that you’re listening and hearing; it opens people up to talking about what’s going on without necessarily revealing anything about you. People appreciate transparency more than we think they do.
Empower the people in the middle.
Middle managers often have the hardest jobs; they have a team of people they have to please, but typically no ownership in the company. Give rising leaders an opportunity to push aside other items on their to-do list to make time for people in their group. Remind them that this effort doesn’t need to be big, but if it’s needed by their immediate teammates, it should be a priority.
Celebrate incremental progress (small wins count!).
Researcher Steven J. Kramer discovered that “of all the things that can boost emotions, motivation, and perceptions during a workday, the single most important is making progress in meaningful work.” The more people can feel like they are making progress, the more likely they are to be productive and creatively energized. Noticing and acknowledging small steps towards progress can help your teammates get unstuck and motivated, particularly when times are uncertain.
Ask a lot of questions (more than you think).
Organizational conversation demands leaders to draw from a key pillar of personal conversation: to find a way to cultivate proximity between the speaker and the listener. Great leaders know that a lot of power lies in listening to people in every group and level of their organization in order to create a sense of authenticity. Acknowledge that navigating these situations is hard and then get curious about the people you work with. For those who are inspired, ask, “What is inspiring you?” For those who are lost, inquire, “How can I help you not struggle?” A great leader doesn’t make a decision for their teammates, but rather gives them the tools they need to make decisions for themselves.
- Create space for open conversation. It’s easy to get overwhelmed by the idea of taking time away from work for conversations that don’t directly impact the bottom line, but a little time goes a long way. Schedule 1-2 talks every quarter and you’ll be surprised by just how much these conversations can propel people forward when they’re feeling stuck, unmotivated, or disappointed. Allow people to feel sad and lost before they can empower themselves and transcend a rocky period.
Being a great leader requires you to walk a long, thin tightrope. You’re always balancing between the organization’s bottom line (so you can keep the lights on) and ensuring your employees feel empowered and motivated (so there’s someone to flip the light on in the morning). It’s a tough spot to be in and there will be times when you may lean towards one side or the other. In the end, it’s important to remember that great leaders recognize when they’re out of balance.
The most effective leaders are able to move beyond operating from a place of fear (How will I be perceived? Will it all fall apart? Will they be able to step up when I need them? Can they handle this news?) and instead focus on figuring out what their team needs, and how to empower them to motivate, support, and inspire each other.
Thanks to Dr. Jacinta Jiménez, BetterUp’s Head of Coaching for her scientific input on this piece.