The spirit of the day is one of survival paranoia. The more directions shift the more constant the adjustments and readjustments, the greater the collective exhaustion, and soon the very collective that sustains any organization is destroyed. Soon the communal spirit that is the energy of innovation is diminished.
The EAP gets flooded, the stress gets out of hand, self-medication goes up, and work-family conflict becomes predominate. So the question is simple. What is the responsibility of leadership? It is this: Take time out. Not to falsely reassure, but to positively share a common direction. Not to falsely call for participation, but to sincerely welcome partnership. Not to falsely give hope, but to genuinely appreciate stress. Not to curtail restructuring and lay-offs when necessary, but to deeply appreciate the pain. In a time of change, leadership must appreciate that their communal, and at times almost therapeutic, responsibility is as critical as their fiduciary response. Be it at a university, a bank, or a trucking company, leaders can never over-engage in empathy.
When Bill Clinton used the phrase, “I feel your pain” it soon became a subtle reflection of token empathy that, in its heart, seemed to some to be tactical more than emotional. I’ve always taken exception to this critique of Clinton. Indeed, truly successful leaders do in fact reflect their capacity to feel other peoples pain. While they might not be paralyzed by empathy, it’s weight gives some social guidance to leaders.
The challenge for a leader is to make sure his or her empathy isn’t dismissed as tokenism . To do this consider the following:
1. Weigh your decisions in the context of corporate needs, but in the shadow of corporate responsibility.
2. This is not the time to cut employee assistance programs and other social support services.
3. Go beyond formal communication. Don’t simply notify. Use new social technologies to stay in touch and maintain the sense of community. If you can, Twitter your concerns. Create chat-rooms and online communities of support.
4. Don’t just tell them how you feel. Ask them how they feel.
5. Show that you are taking on part of the burden. Even small gestures can go along way.
Taking time out for empathy illustrates how you feel the pain and how you share it. It’s not a minor responsibility of for leadership in our times.