Leading with empathy in times of high pressure 

Incorporate these simple solutions into your routine to enhance your empathy skills as a leader.

We’ve all been in this situation before: the deadline is uncomfortably close, resources are scarce, and team members’ eyes are glazed over as they work exhausting 14-hour days to complete the remaining tasks. When your team is feeling this pressure, you wonder if chaos will ensue or if internal conflicts will bring the project to a grinding halt. We have witnessed this scenario many times, which can often be alleviated by understanding your team’s emotions and triggers.

As a leader, it is crucial to respond with empathy and compassion in these situations. No number of high-stakes meetings or ultimatums will enable your team to complete the project feeling satisfied. Moreover, their output could be better. We know the significance of language and word choice; empathetic leaders also recognize that emotions influence messaging and communication. Leading with empathy and compassion necessitates having laid some groundwork before a crisis emerges, starting with understanding what motivates your teams and how they perceive the world.

Let’s establish a common understanding by defining empathy, which differs significantly from sympathy. While both involve understanding and sharing the feelings of others, they differ in the level of emotional connection. Sympathy acknowledges another person’s emotions, whereas empathy requires a deeper investment, involving a genuine understanding of those feelings. Empathy often necessitates putting oneself in another person’s shoes, resulting in a stronger connection. Strong relationships enable us to navigate high-stress and challenging situations more effectively.

Before challenging circumstances arise, take the time to get to know your team. Understand what motivates them, what deflates their spirits, how they prefer to receive information, and what causes stress; also, be aware of any personal situations that may affect their performance at work. I’m not suggesting prying for personal details, but if such information is voluntarily shared with you, take a moment to empathize with how those situations may feel and influence behavior during times of stress. Understanding these circumstances and emotions beforehand allows you to anticipate potential challenges at work and what your team members’ default coping mechanisms are.

There are several simple solutions you can incorporate into your routine today to enhance your empathy skills:

  • Actively listen during your one-on-one meetings: You likely already have one-on-one meetings with your team, but I encourage you to incorporate more active listening during these sessions. Pay attention to the emotions expressed alongside the issues. Is there a recurring pattern? Try to place yourself in their shoes without judgment, considering the circumstances.
  • Use assessment tools for perspective-taking: Various assessment tools can be used as team-bonding activities. A better understanding of one another should lead to increased empathy and connection. One valuable tool that I found recently is Cloverleaf; it provides insights into how I see the world as well as the perspectives of team members on a day-to-day basis. This allows me to understand motivations and points of view in a digestible manner rather than dedicating lengthy sessions to it.
  • Foster kindness in team meetings: Consider starting your meetings with people giving praise to each other instead of diving straight into business matters. These “praises” will provide insights into what emotionally uplifts your team and what they value. Conversely, be vigilant for inappropriate remarks that can be perceived as disrespectful, hurtful and damaging to trust among team members. Managing high-stress situations becomes an entirely different scenario when everyone already feels confident and secure.

Let’s revisit the scenario mentioned at the beginning of this article. You and your team have a pending deadline, and emotions run high. In the worst-case scenario where no empathy work has been done, you might not be aware that Tyab is concerned about his mother’s deteriorating health, or that Lara requires uninterrupted thinking time to solve complex problems. Additionally, the entire team might feel worn out and anxious because during team meetings, Dan consistently makes fun of people’s mistakes.

Now, let’s envision an alternative scenario. You’re still facing that deadline! This time, you have acknowledged Tyab’s concerns about his mother’s health and discussed work hours to ensure he can be present and focused. Because you understand that Lara requires time to think through concepts, you have paced the introduction of new problems accordingly. As a result, Lara’s solutions are brilliant and take the project to new heights. Finally, the entire team feels comfortable pushing their limits because there is no fear of making mistakes. By taking these steps, you have significantly mitigated the risks associated with the project.

Regularly practicing empathy allows us to better understand each team member, particularly during stressful times. Understanding these emotions enables us to frame our goal-setting and accountability conversations effectively. After all, it is often not just what was discussed that motivates people but also how the message was conveyed and received.