Covid-19: Paving the way for a more empathetic leadership style?

Leadership is not confined only to the upper echelons of an organisation, but it can be seen throughout the full hierarchy from large corporate structures to close-knit entrepreneurial teams. Leadership can impact the actions and behaviours of thousands, but also the actions of the few. Yet despite the worlds fixation with leadership, many organisations still embody autocratic, impulsive and impersonal leadership techniques. With a huge cultural shift across the workplace in the past 18 months, the Covid-19 pandemic has presented several opportunities for the business world to embrace a new era of leadership which is more empathetic, compassionate, inclusive, and understanding of the needs of the workforce.

The Value of the Virtual World

The International Labour Organization’s Policy Brief from July 2020 stated clearly that ‘employment policies must put gender equality at the core of the emergency and recovery efforts to avoid long-term damages to women’s job prospects and to build back better and fairer’ . In order to attempt to fulfil this ideal of building back better and fairer, we must first examine the bricks we are building with.

Issues surrounding gender equality are not only visible at an executive level but, concerningly, can be seen within the early stages of childhood education. Studies have shown that girls are less likely to raise their hand or participate in class than boys , whilst teachers tend to (unconsciously) overlook wrong answers from boys but overlook right answers from girls. Even from an early age society has been conditioning the message to girls that their voices are potentially less valued than their male counterparts. There has been a great deal of work over the last few years and interestingly, there are some positive insights we can take from the increase in virtual meetings over the past 18 months.

Firstly, the etiquette of online meetings means people are less likely to interrupt or cut others off, and it’s ‘virtually’ impossible for anyone to assert a physical presence over an online meeting. Everyone has the same window in which to showcase their ideas, so voice projection does not carry the same influence it potentially could in a physical meeting. Furthermore, with studies showing the negative impacts of height discrimination on both women and men, the virtual meeting can remove this factor from the equation altogether, helping to level the playing field for all employees and remove unnecessary meeting stress or anxiety. It is no longer the person who shouts the loudest that automatically gets heard. As we transition back towards office working, it is important that companies aim to carry these elevated learning skills from the virtual to the physical world. A greater focus on inclusivity and an equal opportunity for all employees to have their voice heard could provide the foundations for a more empathetic leadership.

Competency over Conventionality

The pandemic has brought to the surface acute challenges such as flexibility, remote working, childcare, and mental wellbeing and many of us have been forced to lose important companionship as well as being forced to work in stressful and unsustainable environments – the impact of this can and has been serious. As a very sad example, in Japan, suicide rates have risen for the first time in 11 years, and in October 2020 alone, the female suicide rate was 70% higher when compared with the previous month . Now more than ever, staff wellbeing is at the forefront and companies are being tasked with creating a culture that is more aligned to the needs of their employees. The Covid-19 pandemic has created the perfect opportunity for companies to review their HR strategies and ensure they’re meeting those needs.

In recent months, staff at global companies like Google have pushed back on plans to return to the office, whilst accounting firm Deloitte announced last week that UK staff can decide when, where, and how they work. It’s clear that remote working and flexible hours are here to stay, with staff wanting more autonomy over their work. The autocratic and old school leadership styles that have worked so well (sometimes) in the past, must step aside for leadership which is authentic and compassionate, if businesses are to successfully navigate their way through this major cultural shift. A greater focus should now be on staff competency and performance, instead of an employee’s ability to be present in the office five days a week. And with clear correlations between staff wellbeing and improved productivity, more empathetic, staff-focused strategies should be front and centre for all companies as we begin the transition into a post-covid workplace.

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