First Person: Engaging the Workforce with Empathetic Leadership
Area Development’s staff editor Mark Crawford recently asked Ericsson’s Dan Kerber, vice president of digital services business operations for North America — who helps companies improve their financial and operational metrics through improved resource management processes — about his thoughts on leadership, especially the need for “soft skills” during the COVID-19 pandemic.
Kerber: There are many important soft skills, but the three I have found most important are communication, giving effective feedback, and empathy. Good communication skills are essential for conveying information, decisions, and your thought processes to your team. Giving effective feedback is also essential, but often fundamentally uncomfortable for many people, which makes them reluctant to move into leadership roles. Empathy is hugely important for effective leadership today, especially during the pandemic. I have seen plenty of successful and not-so-successful leaders who fell across the spectrum, ranging from highly empathetic to borderline android, and I know which kind I want to be.
AD: What does it mean to be an empathetic leader? What are the qualities of empathetic leadership?
Kerber: Many people think of empathy as understanding what another person is going through, which is part of it. But true empathy means not just knowing it intellectually but also practicing it and understanding what the other people are experiencing at an emotional level. Only then can you fully contextualize their experience, and what you as a leader can or should do to support them.
Empathetic leaders are skilled at active listening. This allows them to quickly identify emotional reactions in others and know the right steps to navigate tough situations, without making them worse. Empathy is especially helpful for managing your own emotional reactions — just a little poor behavior can quickly undermine a lot of good work by an otherwise empathetic leader.
For me, a big part of being an empathetic leader is doing two things very frequently: checking in with employees to see how they are doing on a personal level — which became even more important during the pandemic — and being deliberate about thinking through how actions or decisions will impact employees and what those actions will feel like for them.
To be honest, early in my career as a leader, empathy did not come easily for me. But I had some good role models who helped me see what empathetic leadership looked like, which made me realize this was the kind of leader I wanted to be. I also learned that even if it does not come naturally, you can still become an empathetic leader by being deliberate about thinking things through and being intentional about decisions and their impacts, with an empathetic mindset.
AD: What are the business benefits of having strong soft skills?
Kerber: The most relevant business benefit from using soft skills like empathy is a high-performing workforce. Niklas Heuveldop, senior vice president for Ericsson North America, once told me that empathy allows our leaders “to bring out the best in our people and mobilize Ericsson to our full potential, for the benefit of our customers, employees, shareholders, and society at large.”
When working with vendors and customers, empathy helps us better understand how they will view and experience a given situation, which is an incredibly powerful tool for an effective working relationship. It can be the difference between getting a deal or not, or saving an engagement that is going through a rough patch.
AD: How has the pandemic impacted leadership and the need for soft skills?
Kerber: Last year, executives around the world were forced to make employee experience and well-being a top priority. Their ability to lead in a crisis became crucial, especially connecting with employees who were universally anxious and looking to them for answers. For many senior leaders, this meant communicating more frequently and openly, and making employee health and safety a primary topic of nearly every meeting and communication.
Working remotely was especially stressful for employees — being intentional about things like active listening, asking with genuine interest about how people are doing, and demonstrating vulnerability when talking with employees about your own struggles can go a long way to making up for that missing information and context from physical meetings or interactions.
AD: What lessons have leaders learned about leadership and empathy from the pandemic?
Kerber: In many cases, the pandemic forced leaders to live the same experience as their employees, with everyone being suddenly dropped into an unplanned work-from-home adventure, where working spouses and school-age kids had to compete for quiet working space, and parents with increased workloads also had to fit in time to shepherd their remote-learning kids as they and their teachers struggled to make virtual learning work. I think that experience helped many leaders strengthen their empathy muscles as they experienced the same situations their employees did.
An interesting lesson I have seen many leaders learn is the value of frequent meetings with their employees — both team meetings and one-on-ones, where both work and personal topics are discussed. Early in the pandemic, I started having one-on-ones every week with each employee, plus a daily staff meeting with everyone, where all meetings were split 50/50 between personal and work topics. I knew it would be useful in the early weeks, but figured my team would eventually tell me the meetings were taking too much time. However, the opposite has been true. Not only do they look forward to the meetings from a personal point of view, the meetings also still help them stay engaged and productive, which saves them time. And even though most of us have not seen each other in person for over a year now, we are much closer as a team than we were before the pandemic.
AD: Any final thoughts?
Kerber: As unprecedented levels of uncertainty, anxiety, and stress continue to take a toll on people’s well-being, more leaders have also learned how important it is to openly discuss mental health. One way for leaders to do this is by discussing their own struggles and how they are coping. I have written about some of my struggles on our company’s public blog and made it a point to share the fact that I used Ericsson’s Employee Assistance Program. If employees see a senior leader talking openly about using these benefits, it can help remove any stigma associated with utilizing these incredibly valuable resources to a high-performing workforce.
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