Languishing and flourishing — these terms have entered the mainstream consciousness as ways to describe our current state of being and where we might rather be, courtesy of recent articles in the New York Times. Following Mental Health Month in May, it is important to take all of the discussion of well-being, self-care and support into the weeks and months ahead.
As leaders, the mental health and energy of our teams are important to keep front of mind — right alongside business goals and career development. Self-awareness of what we are bringing with us into any conversation is critical, as well. Consider the following ideas for building empathy and having conversations with your team that go further than encouraging self-care. They can help you build a team dynamic of trust, authenticity and belonging in which your team is able to thrive.
Start with the basics.
Leaders are human. As a leader yourself, you may be thinking, “Of course, I am human. What else would I be?” The people who work for you are human too, which is hopefully just as obvious. Part of being human is understanding our imperfections and how the context of our lives shape our perceptions and, therefore, our actions. Our context, history and genetics also shape our physical and mental health. All this to say, as humans, we are complex and deserve to live and work in ways that honor our complexity.
As a human leader of humans, what does this mean for you? It means considering how you lead empathetically. It means asking yourself how you make space for your team’s humanity — their challenges, their growth, their goals and their dreams.
After a year of personal and professional stresses and strains beyond what many of us have previously experienced, it is not surprising to find ourselves exhausted and depleted. And it is more than likely that your teams are feeling the same way. Over the last year, we have had glimpses of our co-workers' lives outside the office, which has broadened our understanding of who they are. No longer are we left imagining what life at home is like for our co-workers; we have seen flashes of it during the unending video meetings of the last year.
One of my coaching clients, a senior scientist at a large medical device company, has recently prioritized building his capacity for empathetic leadership. Prior to doing this work, he was sought out for his technical expertise but had a reputation for having a prickly personality and being self-focused. He has made an intentional effort to lead with empathy by preparing for meetings in a new way: He now thinks about how he can draw ideas out of others, demonstrate curiosity and speak last instead of first. He has learned about his peers' and junior staff's professional interests and career aspirations as a result.
Empathy is a skill and an ability that requires personal energy and awareness. While some leaders may be more naturally empathetic, it is a skill all leaders can develop with practice and intention as my client has demonstrated. You can grow these skills, too.
Engage in active listening.
Part of being an empathetic leader is creating space for your team to be present at work while acknowledging the full complexity of their lives. It is important to understand that different employees will have different comfort levels, expectations, needs and boundaries about sharing personal struggles or challenges outside of work that are affecting their ability to do their work. As a leader, be curious about what is going on in their lives but don’t pry. When you ask how they are doing, pay full attention and watch for non-verbal clues. Demonstrate you care about the person beyond their contributions in the workplace.
Be a connector to resources.
If you work for a mid- or large-size company, chances are that your company has an employee assistance program that offers a range of services. This is an important and valuable benefit, but sometimes it isn’t enough to remind an employee who is struggling that an employee assistance program exists. Consider how you could be a connector to company and external resources. Are there other well-being programs available in your organization? How easy is it to register? If the employee is interested, can you make time for them to attend? Or if they want to use the EAP, can you help them carve out time to make the call? If an employee is hesitant to connect with workplace resources and you are comfortable sharing your personal story about how they have helped you, that can both build trust and help the employee take the necessary steps.
Being a connector to resources is about more than supporting your employees’ mental well-being. It is also about connecting them to opportunities for career growth, aligned with their aspirations. Using your active listening skills to discern motivation and being curious about long-term goals will help you and your employee set a path for success, work with shared integrity and meet business goals.
In the client example I shared earlier, investing energy and effort in empathy has meant that this scientist is making more informed decisions about delegation and development-aligned project team assignments. People are willing to approach him for more than his technical expertise now and the overall team’s reputation for collaboration and innovation has improved.
How are you going to exercise your empathetic leadership to support, connect and advocate for employees? The reward can be authentic connections with and across your team, more trust and understanding, and increased employee engagement and retention.
*This article first appeared on Forbes.