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COVID-19 Reset & Recovery: Coaching Leaders into the Future with Empathy and Emotional Intelligence

For organizations to be successful in the post-COVID-19 world, leaders need to communicate with and lead their teams using three components of emotional intelligence (aka “emotional quotient” or EQ): empathy, compassion, and self-awareness. The challenge is translating these soft skills in a virtual world where interactions are limited to structured meetings over various video platforms.

Today more than ever, leaders need to understand their teams’ stress levels, engagement intensity, and motivation to support well-being, engagement, and productivity. Coaches can help leaders quickly develop and demonstrate the EQ needed to lead in times of high stress by offering targeted, personalized, and focused development.

Leaders can strengthen relationships with their employees in these turbulent times by regulating their own emotions, learning not to activate the stress response that renders them unable to attend to the present moment or make clear decisions—in short, unable to lead. By teaching basic elements of EQ, mainly focusing on the empathy and self-awareness that will naturally manifest in compassionate acts, coaches can help leaders more effectively cultivate teamwork, cooperation, and learning.1

Coaching leaders to develop empathy

Leaders who have developed the empathy component of EQ demonstrate better performance and elicit higher levels of loyalty and engagement from their teams than those who have not.2 Many organizations already recognize that leaders must develop their EQ to lead teams through ambiguity: EQ is one of the three most frequently covered topics in coaching engagements, the 2018 Global Executive Coaching Survey by The Conference Board revealed.3

By developing empathy, leaders can engender strong levels of trust and better understand what supporting employee well-being looks like for individual employees.4 Coaches help leaders communicate with confidence and transparency, a key element of trust building. Transparency coupled with empathy allows leaders to create an open environment where employees can share their challenges and seek support when needed. With effective, empathetic communication, leaders can ease employee anxieties about their health or safety5 and meet other diverse employee needs.

Coaches can help leaders incorporate empathy into their leadership styles by:

  • Discussing strategies for building and maintaining personal relationships with team members.6

    In Action: Leaders can ask employees about life outside of work or implement “office hours” for team members to connect with leaders as needed through an open line of communication.

  • Coaching leaders on how they can use empathy to provide employees with meaningful help and support when it matters most.

    In Action: Columbia University’s vice president of HR focuses on understanding and anticipating hardships the workforce may face through general measures such as flexible work schedules and addressing more specific struggles like managing stress and anxiety.7

  • Helping leaders strengthen their listening skills to cultivate meaningful interactions with employees.

    In Action: Having good listening skills entails letting employees know they are heard while simultaneously paying attention to nonverbal cues (i.e., tone, pace of speech, facial expressions, etc.).8

  • Encouraging leaders to show appreciation and recognize team member contributions to strengthen bonds in a virtual setting.

    In Action: Kimberly Lewis of Goodwill Industries of East Texas, Inc., says her company recognizes a job well done with an organization-wide shoutout. The shoutout gives a team member a virtual high five, which individuals add to by sending congratulatory emojis and messages.9 Small personal actions, such as thank-you emails, can also go a long way.

  • Brainstorming with leaders ways to highlight employees’ compassionate acts to foster a supportive work environment and sense of interconnectedness.

    In Action: Employees can acknowledge compassionate acts they’ve experienced or witnessed from others in team and staff meetings. One of Los Angeles County’s largest social service agencies, The People Concern, collects “Kudos” messages its employees submit to recognize and celebrate each other. These messages are sent out to all staff members every two weeks and function as a means to foster mutual appreciation and community.10 Any employee can submit “Kudos” or congratulations to be shared in the message.

  • Building empathy by having leaders practice taking on the perspectives of team members, without judgment, to better understand and acknowledge their experience.11

    In Action: Leaders work on imagining how they would feel in various situations that employees may bring to them and then respond based on those feelings.12 This type of role play allows leaders to develop empathetic, effective approaches to supporting their employees.

Lack of empathy prevents leaders from connecting with employees and may cause organizations to miss out on or lose valuable talent. Through acts of compassionate, empathetic leadership, leaders can make a positive difference in employees’ lives.

Coaching leaders to develop greater self-awareness

To strengthen empathetic behavior in leaders, coaches can help leaders recognize their own fears and anxieties in high-stress situations13 and thus better understand and relate to their employees’ experiences. If they lack self-awareness, leaders may be unable to think and act clearly; they may also fail to exhibit empathy, an essential trait to lead high-performing teams in a crisis. Leaders may instead act in accordance with their own stress and be more prone to anxious, reactive, and self-sabotaging actions, which can translate into decreased team performance and innovation.14

Reminding leaders to step back and recognize that they are affected by their thoughts and emotions, both of which influence decision making, can strengthen self-awareness.15 A coach can help leaders acknowledge how they make sense of a challenge or situation and better understand how the same process happens in their employees. In turn, this self-knowledge can create a stronger empathetic response to employees who may be struggling.

Coaches can help leaders build self-awareness by:

  • Encouraging leaders to reflect on when, why, and how various emotions affect their thoughts and actions.

    In Action: Leaders should pause and make a mental note of their reactions to various situations throughout their workday, even during a five-minute break. These observations can help them practice self-regulation and understanding of others, making leaders more effective during unfamiliar, unpredictable, and stressful situations.16

  • Helping leaders identify their strengths and build a solution-focused mindset they can practice with employees.

    In Action: With help from a coach, leaders can identify a recent challenge and discuss how their strengths can be used to mitigate a negative outcome or create a more positive one. Leaders can in turn help their teams develop this skill to overcome future challenges.

  • Reminding leaders of the power associated with personal aspirations and passions.17

    In Action: The coach can discuss and highlight the leader’s passions and values as they relate to personal and professional development, creating focused learning and development opportunities to close skill gaps in areas the leader is already enthusiastic about. Deliberately associating passion with purpose further supports leaders’ self-engagement and motivation to work through difficult times.

Coaching leaders to prepare for the future

Coaches should encourage leaders to model behaviors that help employees feel confident and motivated and that keep their team future focused.

Coaches can create value by:

  • Helping leaders learn how to display a positive attitude and emotions while also cultivating a personal growth mindset.18

    In Action: Leaders can learn to be comfortable with not having all the answers about future events while simultaneously displaying optimism and openness to learning through new experiences.

  • Developing leaders who create a sense of stability even during chaotic moments.

    In Action: Leaders can develop agile teams by establishing consistent processes and procedures in areas such as project management, communicating frequently and clearly, and reassuring teams using the facts at hand even as events evolve. These practices can give team members a sense of familiarity even when external events appear out of control.19

  • Prompting questions that address a situation and all of its possible outcomes.

    In Action: Coaches can steer leaders to ask questions such as: What would be the ideal outcome? What steps would we need to take to produce that outcome? What outside factors could affect the outcome?20

  • Cultivating a future-oriented mindset.

    In Action: Coaches can teach leaders how to focus on a long-term view that is connected to a larger personal and professional context (i.e., vision and values).21 By doing so, leaders ground themselves and may be less likely to make shortsighted decisions.

Leaders are being asked to step up in extreme conditions that are difficult, stressful, and uncertain. Without highly developed EQ, it is impossible for leaders to remain grounded for themselves and their teams. Empathy and self-awareness are no longer “nice to have”; rather, they are now essential for team performance and organization survival.

[1] Daniel Goleman, Emotional Intelligence: Why It Can Matter More Than IQ (New York: Bantam Dell, 1995), 148–163.

[2] Nicolai Chen Nielsen, Gemma D’Auria, and Sasha Zolley, “Tuning In, Turning Outward: Cultivating Compassionate Leadership in a Crisis,” McKinsey & Company, May 1, 2020.

[3] Amy Lui Abel and Rebecca L. Ray, Global Executive Coaching Survey 2018, The Conference Board, March 2019.

[4] Amy Lui Abel and Amanda Popiela, Human Capital Management during COVID-19: Leading Virtual Teams in a Crisis, The Conference Board, April 2020.

[5] Robin Erickson and Amanda Popiela, Human Capital Management during COVID-19: Focusing on Employee Engagement in a Crisis, The Conference Board, April 2020.

[6] Abel and Popiela, Leading Virtual Teams in a Crisis.

[7] Nabeel Ahmad, Robin Erickson, and Vivian Jaworsky, Human Capital Management during COVID-19: How Leaders Can Connect with Employees in a Crisis, The Conference Board, April 2020.

[8] “The Importance of Empathy in the Workplace,” Center for Creative Leadership.

[9] Forbes Nonprofit Council, “11 Uplifting Ways to Celebrate Wins in Your Nonprofit Organization,” Forbes, April 27, 2020.

[10] Forbes Nonprofit Council, “11 Uplifting Ways to Celebrate Wins in Your Nonprofit Organization.”

[11] Jacob Morgan, The Future Leader: 9 Skills and Mindsets to Succeed in the Next Decade (New Jersey: John Wiley & Sons, Inc., 2020).

[12] Jeffrey E. Auerbach, “How to Coach for Compassion,” College of Executive Coaching.

[13] Nielsen et al., “Tuning In, Turning Outward.”

[14] Alison Horstmeyer, “Making Meaning at Work,Training Journal, September 2018.

[15] Horstmeyer, “Making Meaning at Work.”

[16] Horstmeyer, “Making Meaning at Work.”

[17] Morgan, The Future Leader.

[18] “The Big Reset for Leadership: Five Lessons for the Future with Josh Bersin,” DDI Webinars webcast, aired May 20, 2020.

[19] Nabeel Ahmad, COVID-19 Reset & Recovery: Implications for Learning & Development, The Conference Board, August 2020.

[20] Morgan, The Future Leader.

[21] Horstmeyer, “Making Meaning at Work.”



Amy Lui Abel, PhD

Vice President, Human Capital Research
The Conference Board

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Vivian Jaworsky

Research Analyst, Human Capital
The Conference Board


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