Research has shown that empathy is one of the most important leadership qualities because it directly affects employees' mental state and quality of work. Workplaces with empathetic leaders are more likely to have improved employee engagement, retention, and inclusivity.
But this begs the question: how can leaders practice empathy with their remote workers? Having face-to-face interactions makes it easier to be empathetic to a person, but how does it work with staff halfway across the globe?
Here we'll address these questions and more. Let's dig in!
What is empathetic leadership?
Empathetic leadership drives success, but what exactly is it? Well, the answer is fairly self-evident — it's a style of leadership that prioritizes putting yourself in the shoes of your employees to understand their wants, needs, stresses, and feelings. The goal is for leaders to connect on a deeper, more personal level with individual members of their team.
Empathetic leaders are able to gain a better understanding of what makes people tick. This builds trust, strengthens engagement, and makes their team more committed not just to each other, but to mutual goals.
Benefits of practicing empathetic leadership
We've all probably experienced or at least heard of workplaces that encourage a kill-or-be-killed culture — the type of place that fosters aggression, shark-like attitudes, and incentivizes backstabbing to climb the corporate ladder. Fortunately, a new era is upon us, and this old-school leadership style is on the decline, replaced by styles that value interpersonal connection, work-life balance, and mental health.
Given the benefits of workplace empathy, the reasoning for this new style of leadership is clear. Some benefits of practicing empathetic leadership include:
- Stronger trust between teams: People work best when they can rely on one another. Nobody wants to go to work worried that their team members or managers will sell them out to earn brownie points with higher-ups. When empathetic leaders make an effort to understand their team's feelings and provide unconditional support, stronger foundational trust is created.
- Increased engagement: A survey from Catalyst found that "76% of people with highly empathetic senior leaders report often or always being engaged, compared to only 32% of people with less empathetic senior leaders." One of the best ways to make employees check out of their work is to invalidate their concerns and ideas. A little compassion goes a long way in keeping staff engaged for the long haul.
- Burnout prevention: Keeping team members' mental health at the top of the priority list not only keeps them with the company for a longer time on average, it also prevents burnout and reduces stress. People generally have enough on their plates when it comes to everyday tasks — the last thing they need is their boss adding to it. If they feel superiors can't or won't understand their issues, they'll take their talent somewhere that will.
- Community building: In some sense, the most effective part of empathetic leadership is how it not only builds teams, but builds community as well. It allows teams to feel they are part of something greater than themselves and are more willing to support one another to maintain it.
How to be an empathetic leader with remote workers
Practicing empathy in the office is all well and good, but physical distance and even varying time zones certainly present some hurdles.
Let's go over how we can be more empathetic leaders regardless of our teams' locations on the globe.
1. Build a culture of communication
Every team, especially remote ones, needs a culture of communication to build trust and interpersonal connection. While this can certainly be more difficult with teams that are spread out physically, it's not impossible. In all of human history, it's never been easier than it is right now. Here are a few ideas to get the creative juices flowing:
- Have weekly one-on-one meetings: Block off some time for a weekly, flexible meeting with each team member. Let them know that the meeting is their time to discuss anything they want — work-related or not. This provides ample opportunity to get to know each other on a more personal level and allows them to vent about issues they're having at work. Work with them to address the issues they mention so they know you're their advocate, not their adversary.
- Make better use of communications tools: Most remote teams have Slack, Zoom, and other communication tools at their disposal, but are they making the most of these tools? In-person co-workers often have valuable bonding time outside of work and throughout the day. Trying to replicate those activities as best as possible to allow remote staff to feel included goes a long way in fostering healthy communication.
- Listen first, speak second: Healthy communication begins with listening to your team rather than speaking. Hear what they're saying without interruption, repeat it back to them to show you understand it, and ask probing questions. Make sure you're distraction-free to show respect and be thoughtful in your approach — put away your phone, silence email notifications, etc.
- Avoid monitoring software: Part of building trust means allowing remote staff to have autonomy over their lives. While some companies have opted to monitor their employees, this robs them of their independence and breaks the oh-so-crucial trust between leaders and their teams. There could also be legal issues at play with such invasive software, depending on the jurisdiction in question. The bottom line is if you value your remote staff, trust them to do their work without Big Brother breathing down their necks.
- Pick up the phone: In the age of texting and email, people forget to do one simple thing: pick up the phone. These days it seems so many people have acute cases of telephonophobia (yes, that's the real word for phone-induced anxiety), but phone calls are far more effective at humanizing the person on the other end. Vocal inflection and tone do some heavy lifting to communicate ideas while also reducing the chances of miscommunication. Phone calls even make it easier to segue from work talk to casual chat, providing more opportunities for personal connection. So the next time you're about to send a Slack message to check in with someone, try picking up the phone instead.
2. Be transparent and genuine
Leaders are human, too, and they shouldn't be afraid to show it. When you think of the stereotypical "leader," what do you imagine? Maybe someone who projects strength at all times? Or a person that's commanding and intimidating? But these images are caricatures. They're unrealistic. Good leaders know that they are human and are willing to allow their team to see them as such.
Everybody has bad days. But traditionally, vulnerability in leadership has been painted as a weakness when in reality, it's the opposite. Being vulnerable with your team shows strength and courage. It shows that you trust them enough to be genuine and transparent on a more human level where you can express your thoughts and emotions without judgment. Being able to share your mistakes with the team not only offers practical benefits in allowing them to learn from them, it also shows that it's okay for them to express themselves healthily when things don't go their way.
But don't turn every bad day into a pity party. What separates good leaders from bad ones is how they pick themselves up and proceed. Take the opportunity to turn those moments into teachable ones — that regardless of adversity, you're looking for solutions rather than dwelling on problems.
3. Speak with compassion
Being an empathetic leader means changing some of your speech habits and being more strategic in how you express yourself, particularly with remote teams. Avoid using language that makes remote staff feel out of the loop or excluded.
Make the extra effort to communicate with remote employees so they don't feel deserted. This means checking in regularly for work and casual chats, making it safe and accessible to ask for help, and regularly recognizing their achievements. Be as specific as possible when giving praise to make it more genuine and meaningful.
Don't: "You've been doing a really great job lately. Keep it up."
Do: "I want you to know your hard work on X project is recognized. The workaround you created has saved us so much time and effort. Thank you."
Compassion with remote teams begins with the language we use and the attitudes that formulate culture.