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Leadership best practices are especially important as we map out return-to-work strategies.  Among those best practices is empathy and it takes shape in one of three forms:

  • Cognitive Empathy: Seeing the other person’s perspective, but not feeling the emotions.
  • Emotional Empathy: Feeling someone’s emotions along with them.
  • Compassionate Empathy: Feeling someone’s emotions, seeing their perspective and taking action to help.

Without empathy, we fail to see each person as a whole, and in turn, we may miss opportunities to strengthen trust, resolve conflict, and shift our focus forward. Earlier today I came across an article, Your Top 5 Return-to-Work Questions, Addressed by Mercer.  I commend Mercer for encouraging their clients to use empathy when devising a return to work strategy.  Most resonating was the consideration of external factors like childcare and commuter safety that ultimately impact the way their employees show up to work, as well as their emphasis on the importance of over-communication to manage expectations and lingering anxiety.  The article expressed that there isn’t a one-size-fits-all approach to reopening, rather leaders should be transparent in communicating their plans and open the lines of feedback so employee concerns are heard.

That starts with setting clear direction, focusing on what you know to be true, and conveying hope for a better future. Before moving too quickly toward action, focus on how you can best serve your team by expanding your own awareness and practicing the 3 levels of empathy.

How to demonstrate cognitive empathy

Most of us want to do right by our teams but we often fail to find out what they truly want or need. To avoid misassumptions and show you care, ask your team members what is most important to them and what support they need to perform at their best. Don’t worry if you don’t have all of the answers, or if you don’t know how to solve their concerns in the moment. Sometimes, all a team member wants to know is that you hear them and value what they think. You can do this by simply acknowledging what you heard and validating how they feel. For example, you can say, “It makes sense that you are worried about returning to work. There is a lot of uncertainty now.” Through cognitive empathy, leaders increase trust and create a safe space for their teams to open up. They also avoid frustration that comes from misunderstanding what others truly want and need.

How to demonstrate emotional empathy

When an employee shares a fear or concern with you, take a moment to reflect on what they are saying and how that makes you feel. Consider a time when you might have felt the same way. For example, let’s say that an employee is concerned about returning to work because they are fearful about contracting COVID-19. Even if you don’t have that same concern, think about a time when you might have been worried for your own health or the health of a loved one. How did you feel at that time? How would you have wanted your leader to respond to you when you were feeling that sense of worry or anxiety? By revisiting these emotions, you will be able to more authentically connect and advocate for your team member(s) when deciding how best to address their needs.

How to demonstrate compassionate empathy

Now that you’ve developed both cognitive and emotional empathy, you are poised to take action toward a win-win solution. Clearly outline what is non-negotiable for the company and for the employee.  Ask the employee, “What do you need right now?” 

Next, ask open-ended questions that spark creativity and collaboration like, “What would be your ideal scenario? What would be one step we can take to help you become more comfortable returning to work?” If you are unsure of whether the solution will work, consider a trial period and schedule a date to check in so you can determine whether this option is meeting the needs of both the individual and the business. 

Finally, be open-minded to creative solutions by challenging limiting beliefs around the time, place, and manner in which work gets done. Flexibility will lead to better productivity, problem solving and engagement. 

Learn more about how you and your leaders can develop empathy – email us to schedule a collaborative, exploratory call:  At InspiraWork, we work with leaders and teams to activate the ability to Think Bigger, Act Bolder, and Collaborate Better.


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