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Your team needs an empathetic leader during a crisis

What does crisis leadership mean for helping your direct reports? Here are seven ways you can be connective and compassionate during challenging times.

6 min read


Your team needs an empathetic leader during a crisis

Pixabay image/SmartBrief illustration

In these challenging times, many of my coaching clients are feeling deeply concerned about how to motivate and inspire their people. “How can I motivate someone who is immersed in fear and uncertainty?” they ask. In my coaching sessions, I’m working to help them effectively guide their people when they need a strong leader most.

During times of crisis, showing empathy for your staff and the broader world will help you pull together as a team and feel capable of moving through this challenging time together. Empathy helps you relate to one another on a personal level, showing you care deeply about each other as human beings. Thus, successfully navigating a crisis together can dramatically enhance trust and unity.

How can you lead with empathy in crisis? Here are a few key ways to develop and radiate the compassionate leadership that will help you successfully guide your team through challenging times.

1. Practice emotional attunement

Frequently consider how your employees, coworkers and leaders are handling the current situation. How are they feeling? Take note of their body language, tone of voice and facial expressions. Make yourself more available to them by using open body language and eye contact. You’ll soon have a stronger grasp of how others feel at any given time, strengthening your relationships and enhancing your ability to lead your people.

2. Encourage people to express their emotions

Since your people are your most valuable asset, you especially need to focus on communicating well when confronting challenging times. When people are collectively going through a crisis, don’t expect them to bottle up their feelings and just focus on work. Invite them to share their feelings with you, and practice active listening. When people stifle their feelings, it’s difficult to concentrate on work. Instead, encourage them to share their emotions and experiences so no one feels like they’re going through it alone.

Many individuals on teams can share their experiences and solutions for coping with stress that have worked for them. By processing their feelings together, they can support one another in dealing with their emotions and channeling them into an effective team response.

3. Approach those who are holding back

Some people may not feel comfortable voicing their feelings to the whole group but would confide in you individually. If people appear to be holding back, calmly prompt them to share their concerns with you individually. Practice active listening, asking follow-up questions to better understand what they’re experiencing.

4. Show vulnerability

Show that you’re human as well, not a superhero. Having the courage to show vulnerability is a key leadership trait, even though many leaders attempt to come across as invincible. Just as your employees need to talk about their emotions with each other, you also need to let them see you as a whole person.

Authentic leaders inspire trust and loyalty, as people know they are being transparent and can relate to them. And when you share your feelings, it gives other people permission to do the same.

To establish yourself as an authentic leader, show your team that you experience anxiety about the future, yet feel an intrinsic sense of confidence in your team that affirms you have what it takes to get through this crisis. You don’t want to dwell on stress and anxiety, but you do need to acknowledge it. That will help them relate to you, believe you’re taking the crisis seriously and step up to support you during this time. Your own emotional well-being will benefit from discussing your feelings authentically, too.

5. Leverage a high emotional IQ

Great leaders possess a great deal of empathy for others and a strong understanding of their own emotions. They know what triggers feelings of stress and anxiety in themselves and how to address those feelings in healthy ways. If someone gets frustrated about something trivial, for instance, these leaders know how to read between the lines to consider the potential underlying cause of these feelings.

They show compassion for people in such moments, knowing their feelings are probably fueled by fear or anger about something more significant. Rather than propelling a cycle of blame, they strive to address the root causes of the other person’s behavior.

This empathy for others helps them to blossom into effective leaders because they understand and relate to the people they work with. As a result, they can provide people with the best possible guidance and support.

6. Assess what individual challenges your employees face

Work to assess what support people need on a personal level. Listen closely to them when they confide in you or the group, taking note of the problems they’re confronting. Ask them what personal challenges they’re facing and what they need to get through them. For example, with the COVID-19 crisis, people may be coping with the inability to see and care for elderly parents, working remotely while their kids are at home and dealing with intense feelings of fear about the future.

7. Provide tangible resources to support your people

Think outside the box about what types of solutions might benefit employees. They may not have solutions yet for the problems they face, because they’re too overwhelmed. You may need to draw upon resources from outside of your organization to meet their needs.

You might offer executive coaching sessions, stress-management webinars or training focused on leading the dynamic between ambiguity, agility and change. These types of resources will provide the much-needed guidance that has proven effective for many other people in the same situation.

Support your people in these vital ways, and a crisis will bring you closer together, making you a stronger team. Knowing you can get through this together, you’ll feel you can overcome any challenge with the help of your team!


Are you seeking an executive coach who can help you excel as a leader in challenging times? Joel Garfinkle’s webinar trainings and virtual coaching sessions will help you and your team cultivate the skills it takes to succeed. He recently delivered a webinar to a company in the biotechnology field where he showed them how to make an effective rapid transition to working remotely, for instance. Subscribe to his Fulfillment at Work Newsletter and receive the free e-book, “41 Proven Strategies to Get Promoted Now!” You can also watch 75 of Garfinkle’s two-minute motivational videos on his YouTube channel.

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