Leading With Compassion: 5 Steps to Communicate With Your Team in a Crisis
As industry highs and lows, systemic racial injustice, and the pandemic dominate our existence, it feels as though our world has upended overnight. Suddenly, every step we take, every message we communicate, and every decision we make is magnified.
While compassion has always been a core tenant of leadership, the global crisis has promoted it to the forefront of our hearts and minds. COVID-19 has effectively peeled the layers of leadership down to its essence, reminding leaders to lean on their emotional intelligence and grow the strengths of others before their own. And against this backdrop, leaders are facing new demands to revise their playbooks to put people before performance and humanity above the bottom line.
Yet how can you lead with compassion when the world is changing exponentially every day? The solution is simpler than you might think – put people at the heart of everything you do. Compassionate leaders are adept at charging ahead with their heart and their head. They fiercely rise to the challenge of uncertainty and support those who may be struggling. They listen critically and tune in to the personal fears, anxieties, emotions, frustrations, and motivations of each employee. And they take action to reassess their purpose, redirect their vision, choose their words intentionally, and create a safe haven where compassion, kindness, and integrity are central priorities.
Whether you’re announcing plans to reopen safely, strategies to enforce equality, a leadership transition, or a merger and acquisition, if you lead with compassion, humanity is sure to follow in your stead. Consider these five steps to success.
1. Set the Stage
Heightened uncertainty can be a catalyst for fear to run rampant internally. For this reason, compassionate leaders make it their mission to tame fear by anticipating questions that may arise, and doing everything in their power to debunk or clarify what’s on their team’s minds.
Once fear has been cast aside, they clearly articulate the vision, the steps they’re taking to achieve stated objectives, and potential outcomes and scenarios. This helps employees visualize and understand the impact to their role, and how their contributions align with the organization’s higher purpose.
As part of this, compassionate leaders reassure their team that the future is bright and that the purpose-driven mission, values, brand promise, and ethical standards of the organization remain stronger than ever (while outlining the reasons why).
2. Listen and Lean in to Learning
In order to tame fear, compassionate leaders encourage a diverse flow of ideas that allow everyone to think freely and share feedback openly (instead of trying to emulate the leader’s personal perspective). Leaders with an empathetic backbone ask questions to better understand what employees are thinking, feeling, and experiencing – both personally and professionally.
For instance, what’s going on in their lives that might be influencing their decision-making, performance, or ability to focus at work? What support do they need that they may not have needed previously? What messages resonate and inspire? What processes would they like to see put in place? How can I, as the leader, make their lives easier?
Executives who lead with compassion recognize that not everyone is comfortable expressing their raw feelings and emotional experiences in the same forum. For instance, introverted personalities may prefer an intimate one-on-one setting, whereas others may be happy to air their grievances in front of a larger audience. Successful leaders acknowledge this distinction and personalize their communication style and strategy to the unique needs of each employee. Stepping back to gain perspective allows you to approach difficult situations with a renewed appreciation of and respect for individual circumstances.
3. Put Empathy into Action
According to positive psychology, compassion is “empathy in action.” A perfect example of this comes from a New York City Fire Department chief at another heartbreaking time for our nation – the Sept. 11, 2001, terrorist attack on the World Trade Center.
Despite the overwhelming sense of fear, devastation, and trauma all around him, this chief realized it was his responsibility as a leader to take bold action and put voice to what the firefighters were feeling. He climbed atop a burnt fire truck, instructed the firefighters to take off their helmets – a gesture normally reserved for the end of the shift – and proclaimed: “We lost a lot of people today. This calls for a moment of silence…now let’s put our helmets back on. We have more lives to save.”
This simple gesture made a powerful statement that we’re all in this together, and together, we can do hard things and come out stronger on the other side.
4. Embolden Employees to Be Part of the Solution
Humans are intrinsically motivated by a sense of belonging, so it’s crucial to cultivate an iterative, collaborative approach to idea generation. When leaders involve teams in this process and encourage their opinions, feedback, and perspectives, employees feel valued and respected, and they are therefore more likely to champion the overarching vision of the organization. Collaborative idea generation can manifest in a multitude of ways: all-hands meetings, ideation sessions, townhalls, lunch and learns with specialized experts, focus groups, pulse surveys, etc.
5. Be People-First in Charting the Path Forward
Compassion isn’t a fixed skillset. It’s a muscle that can be strengthened with consistent practice and refinement over time. And as the Dalai Lama said, “When we are motivated by compassion and wisdom, the results of our actions benefit everyone, not just ourselves or some immediate convenience.”
In other words, the right choice is always to put people first. With this mindset, anyone can lead with compassion, humanity, and vulnerability and ultimately empower their teams with the tools needed to thrive during tumultuous times – both immediate and on the blurry horizon.
Lisa Hildebrandt brings more than 14 years of experience in strategic communications and public relations to her current role as Account Director at A.wordsmith, a boutique communications firm headquartered in Portland, Oregon. She’s passionate about storytelling and skilled in building brands, engaging audiences and developing authentic messaging that helps clients communicate compassionately in times of change and uncertainty.