Leading with Empathy in Virtual Times
I once read that if you attach a photograph to a patient’s scan, the medic assessing the scan is more likely to pick up tumours. The photograph triggers an empathic response in the medic. Instead of it being just another task, the photo reminds them that they are dealing with the life of another human.
I was reminded of this when I joined the great “working from home” experiment last week. I lead a coaching company and, although I personally tend to travel from client to client, as do our coaches, we do have a core team based in the office at Monument. Since we come in and out of the office a lot, and are exposed to lots of different people, we thought it prudent to start working from home earlier than the government decreed.
It’s been a revealing week. A virtual coffee was scheduled for 9.30 and 4.30 every day so we can keep in touch. It’s made me realise that I don’t often “chew the cud” with my team. I’m so busy dashing around that I’m not really part of the office banter and the games of Bananagrams that bond the core team who work from the office. I’ll be brutally honest..I’ve been chomping at the bit to get down to business on these virtual chats and find myself rather stumped at the prospect of twice daily virtual “water cooler moments”. I feel quite awkward. Clearly my own empathy muscle needs a little flexing! More of that later.
Anyway, back to the photographs and the empathy trigger. I think that there might be an opportunity to build empathy through these video chats. I have been quite struck by how they seem to offer a window into the lives of ones’ direct reports that makes you see them in a different light. It struck me with some force that our younger team members are going to find working from home something of a nightmare in flat-share situations. Their workplace is often their bedroom where the laptop really must live up to its name! No swanky desks in pristine home offices for them. And, it’s worth noting that they come to work to socialise as well as work. One of the team is going back to Ireland so she can at least be around her family during the day as a week of enforced bedroom working is no fun at all!
I’ve also become more aware of how amazing the mothers that work for us are. Watching them so collected in their home offices with no sign of any clutter makes me appreciate all the more how incredible they are. Any unscheduled interruptions by little ones is actually really welcome as is the stream of pics of them all in their dressing up kits on World Book Day. I can actually feel the oxytocin kicking in. A virtual cuddle. Who can forget that video that went viral of the 2 little kids bursting in on their dad when he was presenting the news? It really tugged at the heart strings because it revealed what we all know; that it takes a lot of effort to present a composed front when you’re a parent. We might know that rationally, but that little video of a domestic scene gone wrong triggered an emotional response which is far more powerful and lingers in the memory longer.
Having an international coach team has given me pause for thought too. Researchers have found that our prefrontal cortex is highly engaged when we discuss people who are like-minded to us but doesn’t register activity when discussing those perceived as unlike us either politically or geographically. That was brought home to me this week when COVID-19 hit our shores. I found myself contacting our coaches in Hong Kong and Singapore, keen to find out how they were…or… was it to find out what we are about to go through? Only once I was personally confronted with the problem about to hit us did I fully comprehend what they’d been through. I realised I should have connected earlier.
And so, working remotely as a result of Coronavirus (COVID-19) might be a spur to developing more empathy because it forces us to consider the impact on others. A window into others’ lives might be a good starting point for seeing, quite literally, another person’s perspective. This is an important aspect of empathy but it’s not enough. I believe empathy is a trainable skill. It’s not something you’re just born with. It’s about honing core life skills of asking and listening. These really do improve with practice but it needs to be intentional. I’m hoping our video chats improve over time as we learn to ask the right questions and create the psychological safety for people to join in.
Perhaps, at a macro level, the enforced hibernation might help us to stop for a while, step off the carousel, and appreciate what it is to be human. The enforced downtime might encourage, even me, to be a little less task-focused and join in a few team games and the online banter. Empathy is the essence of being human and the next few months will, more than ever, require us to show compassion and act empathically.
Let me end on a tip because everybody loves tips! If you do go on a video call, make sure you put your video on, or put a photo up there. Remember the medics and the scan photos!
Geraldine Gallacher is Managing Director of the Executive Coaching Consultancy and can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org
Inclusivity, Dealing in Uncertainty, Staying Connected: Coaching Comment March 2020