Leading With Love: Being an Empathic Leader in the New Working Environment

Empath’s Head of Operations Vanee Cabiling talks about guiding her team with empathy, kindness, and love

We have been living in a pandemic for about two years now, and many people have adapted to living in the new normal. Working in an online setting is no longer new and unfamiliar to us, but it certainly still comes with challenges. There are many opportunities for miscommunication because the social interaction that we were used to before the pandemic has become more limited, which affected everyone around us.

This is something that we all had to get used to. In my experience, the online setting was difficult to adjust to, but eventually I was able to reach a point where I can lead people comfortably. I know that as long as we guide people with the heart, we can overcome these hardships.

Starting out at Empath

As one of the leaders at Empath, I’ve been through some good times and some bad times. I didn’t always have this mindset of leading with the heart—it took a while to get there.

I started out as someone who was a bit authoritative. This mindset led to so much anger, disappointment, and many of my expectations weren’t met. It was stressful and exhausting, and I knew this wasn’t an effective way to lead. I thought about what I could do to be better. That’s when I recalled my time in high school.

Back then, I was always taught to be a servant leader. I suppose I lost sight of this throughout high school, and I had forgotten what it really meant to be a servant leader. Realizing this really helped me change the way I lead from an authoritative style to a more compassionate and caring outlook on leadership, and I don’t think I would be the leader I am today without it.

Having a background in psychology also had a great impact on what kind of leader I wanted to be. I took up some teaching jobs to learn more about what I can do with my psychology degree. It wasn’t something I initially saw myself doing, but I soon realized that working with children has truly developed me into a more considerate and caring person.

By this time, I knew I wanted to work in the mental health space. However, I felt I was lacking in experience to work in the clinical psychology field, so I decided to enter grad school to help me achieve that goal and gain the experiences I needed.

I carried these learnings and experiences with me to my job in Empath. As I strive to become a clinical psychologist, I realized that in some way, I wanted to change the mental health space into a safe sanctuary where people are able to ask for help without any negative stigma or fear that comes with prioritizing your mental health.

How to lead with empathy

I believe that having a balance between a servant leadership style and an authoritative leadership style is the most effective in our changing environment. However, it’s important to note that the authoritative side must come from a place of love and responsibility for your team members.

Here are some of the tips I like to keep in mind in order to be an empathic leader:

1. Build effective and clear communication with your team

Communication can be difficult in an online setting. There are many instances of miscommunication, and it’s easy to just turn off your camera and listen without engaging with your team. Being clear when communicating means that everyone should understand what is happening and what is expected of them. An empathic leader should not assume that their team members know what the expectations are. For instance, at the end of a meeting, it is important to summarize what was agreed upon, what the next deliverables are, who is responsible for them, and what the deadlines are so that there is clear accountability in the team.

It’s also important to be present with your team. Encouraging feedback, sharing thoughts, and promoting the practice of check-ins and check-outs are just some of the ways to show your dedication to the team. When your team members see that you care, they will most likely be more engaging and open to communicating more. Encourage them to speak up about any concerns, issues, or ideas they have. If they ever feel uncomfortable or afraid to say their opinions, accommodate them and allow them a space to speak freely where there is no judgment.

2. Consider your team members’ perspective

As a team leader, it is important to know how your team members think. Understanding their thought processes on why they do things or how they carry out certain responsibilities is good for building a proper synergy for the team.

Team members are expected to accomplish their responsibilities, but sometimes they can make mistakes, and that’s okay! Everyone makes mistakes sometimes, and it’s important to remind them that they are allowed to make mistakes as long as they learn from them.

At the same time, it’s easy to lead mindlessly or with anger, when efforts are minimal and outputs are reliant on other people. As a leader, remember that you are partially responsible for everything that your team does. Allowing them to completely take the fall is not what empathic leaders do. Leading with empathy also means being in solidarity with your team members in everything that you all do.

Empathic leaders should have a deep understanding of each team member’s strengths and weaknesses, and how they contribute to the organization’s goals. Each member can do different things, all of which are equally important to accomplishing tasks. Being aware of your team’s limitations and capabilities will not only take some pressure off their shoulders, but it can also allow them to thrive in fields that they excel at.

Growing with your team members is an inevitable process, and giving yourself and your team a space to evolve can solidify your bond with them.

3. Lead with love

Being an empathic leader means leading with the heart. I’ve mentioned this phrase throughout the article, but to lead with love means to lead your team with compassion, kindness, and genuine care for their well-being. While there are times when we need to be more firm or strict with the team that we lead, everything should always come from a place of love (As cheesy as it sounds, it’s true!).

Having that balance of being a servant leader while also being able to set boundaries and realistic expectations is the most efficient way to empathically lead a team. If leadership is limited to mere negative comments and unhelpful criticisms, it will be difficult for people to grow and learn from their mistakes. Fostering an environment of consideration, while also holding team members up to a reasonable standard, is vital for people to work efficiently. This is something I learned from years of experience, and it was certainly not easy to reach this conclusion.

With my background in psychology, I’ve learned the importance of understanding my colleagues and the value of growing with them. There is always a reason behind their actions, behind the words they use, and why they do the things they do. Not only has this been helpful when leading my team, but also when helping clients.

In the same way that we value the well-being of other people, there is value in loving the work that you do. I started working at Empath because of what it stands for. The company’s advocacy of providing accessible mental healthcare is something I resonate deeply with, and I would love to help people understand that mental health is important and to remove the negative stigma that surrounds it. This desire to help people helps me to continue with my work, and working with my team. People can be easily influenced by their team leader’s demeanor, and if you don’t love what you do, it will affect the team’s motivations as well.

What it means to lead with love

Being an empathic leader can sometimes be misconstrued as being passive or being a “pushover” that anyone can take advantage of. However, we need to take note that empathy is the ability to recognize emotions in others, and to understand other people's perspectives on a certain situation.

Leading with love means to lead as we would like to be led—with care and kindness. Supporting your team, providing them with a safe space, and ensuring their well-being are just some ways we can practice being empathic leaders. Being a leader is never about our own personal gain or using our position to get our way. Effective leadership is about guidance and patience, and most importantly, helping people reach and move towards a common goal.

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