Empathy is not optional

By: Susan Lucia Annunzio. Category: Newsletters


During the past few months I have had the opportunity to talk to quite a few corporate leaders about how best to communicate with employees during the COVID-19 pandemic. Although I’ve spoken to executives from a variety of industries on five continents, much of what they said was remarkably similar. Whether they are in banking, consumer products or consulting, they are worried about their employees’ safety and emotional state, and concerned about communicating effectively.

The advice I give them is no different than what I recommend when leaders are facing any crisis: Before you communicate, put yourself in the shoes of the people you’re talking to. People all over the world are feeling challenged — their world has been shaken. They may express their feelings in culturally different ways, but the actual feelings are the same. They have the human need for empathy — to know the feelings they are experiencing are understood.

Three important reminders:

  1. Don’t pretend that you know how your employees are feeling. An executive doesn’t know what hourly workers feel like, or what personal challenges their employees might be confronting. Do they have elderly parents to take care of? Do they have a child with special needs? Are they in debt?
  2. Ask “how are you feeling?” Give them time to vent, and acknowledge their fears and concerns (“it’s rough working at home with your children not in school and no child care.”)
  3. Don’t try to talk them out of their feelings (“you shouldn’t feel that way because…”). Their feelings will only increase in intensity.

It’s also important to make sure people feel valued. One way to do that is to thank them for their efforts. An executive at a family-owned health products company told me that her volume of business has increased during the pandemic, and people are working long hours. Employees also are willingly putting themselves in harm’s way. We decided she would mail  handwritten notes to her employees and their family to thank them for living the company’s values through their specific behaviors, including following the protocols of sanitizing, wearing masks and social distancing.

Always remember to be kind. In this time of furloughs and layoffs, people are naturally concerned about whether they will still have a job. If you can reassure them that they will be able to come back, do that. If you can’t, tell them that you don’t know yet. Have the courage to tell them the truth, as soon as you know it. Prolonging the inevitable increases anxiety and decreases performance. When you try to protect people by not giving them information, they will make up information that is sometimes worse than the truth. It is also very unkind.

We all need courageous leaders in times like these. Leaders willing to be direct, tackle tough conversations and questions and show the empathy greatly needed and appreciated. Remember, empathy is not optional.

If you would like guidance on your crisis communications, I am happy to offer up to two hours of free virtual consultations. Please reply to this email if you are interested.