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Leading with empathy: What you don't say is just as important as what you do

Early in the COVID-19 outbreak, it was comforting to say, “We’re all in this together.” What became all too clear is that we aren’t—not really. People in high-risk categories are likely living with a lot more fear than those who aren’t. People who lost their jobs, can’t pay their rent, can’t feed their kids, are not having the same experience as those who are just “bored” from staying at home. People joining video conferences from a closet in crowded apartments are not having the same experience as those joining from a sunlit home office or sunny backyards. People with harmonious home lives are not having the same experience as those who are alone and lonely, or those in abusive situations. And people who have good health insurance are not having the same experience as those with none. We’re not all in this in the same way, and what we need the most at this time is empathy and being mindful about what we say, or don’t say.

“Ellen Degeneres got a lot of backlash when she said being in quarantine was like being in jail; she lives in a multi-million dollar mansion,” pointed out Smita Pillai, VP, Global Head of Diversity, Equity & Inclusion for Zendesk. “People keep saying this is a great equalizer; that we are all in the same boat. But the truth is this is anything but an equalizer. We are in the same storm, but in many different boats. This pandemic has brought to the forefront systemic inequities across the globe that have always existed.”

We're not all in this in the same way, and what we need the most at this time is empathy and being mindful about what we say, or don't say.

Pillai doesn’t want to be the diversity police or manage the political correctness monitor. What she hopes is that this is a moment in our collective history and experience that will mark a turning point where we all begin to recognize that the people around us each have their own struggles, just as we have ours. We are all vulnerable. We all have aspects of our lives that are messy. In other words, we’re all human and it’s time to support each other through our struggles.

“Forward-thinking companies have been saying this to their employees for some time now: ‘Bring your authentic self,’” she said. “But the reality is, most of us check our authentic selves (including some of our deepest fears, challenges, and complexes) at the door and come in to play the A-game as employees.” Now that people are working and living in their home situations, she said, they have little choice but to bring their authentic selves. And that’s an opportunity—especially for leaders—to get real about authenticity and team connection.

[Related read: Shannon Weber on how to show up for others in hard times]

Your life, on a conference call

Pillai observes: Zoom calls have become a necessary evil these days. Having your company enter your home via computer so you can do your job effectively, means exposing yourself (and family) in ways you may have never done before. For leaders, this is a moment to meet people where they are.

If you don’t have the right technology to use a Zoom backdrop, for example, people may be able to see inside your home—how you decorate or clean, and how and where you live. Parents with young children, or those with pets, or other dependents might have a much more challenging time fitting the bill of ‘professionalism’ vs those who don’t. These employees might have to stop and care for a child, parent or partner who normally relies on someone else during work hours.

"People keep saying this is a great equalizer; that we are all in the same boat. But the truth is this is anything but an equalizer. We are in the same storm, but in many different boats. This pandemic has brought to the forefront systemic inequities across the globe that have always existed." - Smita Pillai

Acknowledging the need for mental health, Pillai said, on the other hand, has become more important than ever before.

According to the UN, the pandemic COVID-19 is not only attacking our physical health; it is also increasing psychological suffering. Insecurities, depression, loneliness are on a record high increase among the working population. Employees have to constantly juggle coping at work, and home, often at the same time, with no extra support. The problems could range from not being able to afford the best internet plan or a good computer or set of headphones at home to managing a child with a learning disability who now has no school/care system. Managers need to think through the possible situations their employees are in and help to equip them. Introverts are known to suffer the most in video calls, and managers can make it more inclusive by providing information for the meeting early, so everyone can be better prepared and offer their insights.

“Don’t just ask ‘Is there anything I can do for you,’” Pillai said. “Instead say ‘What can I do for you?’”

[Related read: Glennon Doyle on why the work of transformation is never done]

How to respond to colleagues and employees with empathy

Often, managers don’t know how to offer the right kind of support and we can all say the wrong thing, sometimes. It’s not that we want to say the wrong thing. It’s not that we don’t care. It might be that we never learned how to empathize. Or, whether or not we admit it to ourselves, we are afraid of others’ pain and we are unwittingly trying to distance ourselves from it.

“Let’s say someone loses their job. You can have a tendency to want to point out to them ‘Hey, at least you’ve got this, and thank god it’s not that…all of that is very well intended,” said Lee Smithson Burd, a senior consultant at CMA Consultants. “Focusing on what one is grateful for can be inoculating as far as depression; there’s research for that. But that’s that person trying to say, ‘Here’s what I have that I’m grateful for.’ If you say it, it can be really invalidating. The person may be experiencing tremendous loss and fear. Being empathic and tolerating their sense of loss and fear is much more helpful. It’s more soothing to allow them to feel whatever they need to feel instead of trying to fix it."

"But the reality is, most of us check our authentic selves (including some of our deepest fears, challenges, and complexes) at the door and come in to play the A-game as employees." - Smita Pillai

Initially when Coronavirus was evolving, Smithson Burd said, leaders needed to be more prescriptive and directive with their teams. Everyone felt lost and that strength and surety was helpful. Now, she said, employees are getting weary. Now managers can help by staying in touch with everyone, asking ‘How are you doing?’ and showing care and concern, making employees feel supported. And to simply acknowledge: That sounds hard. For many people, this might be an uncomfortable role. But that’s the job.

“As a leader, it’s incumbent on me to have to handle my own anxiety and my discomfort with (the employee’s) anxiety or their expression of feelings,” Smithson Burd said. “Just sit there with their feelings and don’t try to fix it. If the employee wants to get into problem-solving, it’s not like that’s a bad thing to do; but you don’t want to rush that. Letting them be their authentic selves is probably one of the most supportive things you can do.”

She noted that authenticity isn’t always pretty. When people are afraid, they fall into old coping mechanisms, even bad habits they feel like they may have overcome.

"Don't just ask 'Is there anything I can do for you?' Instead say 'What can I do for you?'" - Smita Pillai

“If someone had an unfortunate habit of micromanaging, you may see an uptick in micromanaging,” she said. “You can be compassionate about it like ‘Hey, I’m noticing you’re really drilling down on your team right now and I get it because you’re feeling anxious. But let’s go back to what you were trying to do before.’ It gives them a little bit of breathing room.”

Anxiety, she noted, inhibits people’s capacity to process information. So managers need to keep messages simple, relevant, and straightforward. They can’t ignore the psychological impact of being quarantined, experiencing loss, and, Smithson Burd said, profound disorientation experienced by many.

Unfortunately, managers are the ones who have to try to hold it together for their teams. Smithson Burd talked about one leader who was so distressed they went on a rant about how the country is handling COVID-19 and it shook people in the organization. “Usually an attuned, caring person, in that moment, he was caught up in his own distress and didn’t think about the issues that were top of mind for his employees,” she said. “You want to show that you are in touch with reality and the struggle everyone is experiencing, but you also want to demonstrate and model resilience.”

[Related read: How to support your remote team’s mental health]

Take the long view

COVID-19 will change how companies work. Many big companies are thinking of closing some of their corporate offices. Families might realize they can manage on a single income, and life is nicer when they slow down. Some people are realizing they don’t feel safe living in urban hubs. And many are coping with the fact that mental illness and loneliness are present, just more easily hidden when they’re super busy. When all is said and done, many things will have changed when this is over.

So managers need to keep messages simple, relevant, and straightforward.

But Pillai hopes companies will take the long view and will put their employees and customers first.

This may well prove to be the time when companies who make the bold choices, and stand by their employees and customers, are the ones that will help us build a better, and more equitable future.

After all, she said, the necessary physical (social) distancing does not need to lead to emotional distancing. “Once this pandemic is over,” Pillai said, “people will remember what was said and they’ll remember what was not said.”