​​Leading with empathy: Building and managing emotionally resilient teams in challenging times.

June 22, 2022

When we think about great startups, we often talk about things like growth, trajectory, hustle, or market share. But what really underpins all of that? People, process and clear and precise thinking.

Now more than ever before, fast-growing companies and their founders need to be resilient: to be able to flex with change. Great startups – the ones that survive and thrive – know resilience requires empathy: keeping personal, professional and company wellbeing at the heart of everything they do. 

Innovation often flourishes during times of uncertainty, as we saw after the 2008 market crash. The market is now facing another challenging downturn, but we believe the businesses that manage themselves prudently through tough times come out leaner, stronger and able to win bigger than they were when they went in.

In our new blog series, we’ll be focusing on resilience – the mentalities and tactics startups can adopt to get stronger. Up first, leading with empathy. 

Research by Catalyst has shown the connection between empathy and positive experiences for individuals and teams, including in areas such as: 

  • Innovation – People were more likely to report they were able to be innovative when they had empathetic leaders (61% vs. 13%)
  • Engagement – 76% of people with empathetic leaders reported they were engaged vs. 32% who experienced less empathy
  • Inclusivity – 50% of people with empathetic leaders reported their workplace was inclusive vs. 17% of those with less empathetic leadership

It’s easy to talk about resilience in business, but what does that practically mean for startups? We consider the three core areas to be: 

  • Personal – It’s about founders and their teams being able to cope with the challenges of startup life. That means having focus, discipline and the mechanisms to cope with what’s to come, whether it be good or bad.
  • Professional – It’s having a culture that adapts and thrives in a changing environment.
  • Fundamental – It’s knowing that you have strong strategy, operations and preparation for whatever is to come, from marketing to finance.

Taking these key components of resilience, how can leadership build emotionally resilient teams? This has been especially relevant in the past few years as global events threw teams into unfamiliar, stressful situations. While you work on navigating the current downturn as a founder, it’s likely stressful for your employees as well. Leading with empathy is key to making them feel valued, supported and purposeful over the coming months.

How to lead with empathy and encourage resilience

In this article we will run through three key ways to build and manage resilient teams:

  1. Setting your ‘North Stars’ as a company 
  2. Building a culture of psychological safety which celebrates vulnerability 
  3. Embedding open communication within your business

1. Setting your ‘North Stars’ as a company 

Your company’s ‘North Stars’ will be both the values you try to embody and the goals you aim to achieve as a team. Having these in place will ensure your team is aligned even in challenging times.

Company values

The foundation of building a resilient team starts with defining your company values. Embedding those values in the day-to-day operations of your business is key to setting clear examples of the behaviour you expect. This is even more important in a time of crisis, when accountability is crucial:

  • Founder(s) – Your employees expect your behaviour to align with the company values. When this is the case, they feel secure, supported and at-ease because it's the shared code of conduct they've signed up for. 
  • Leadership – Clear company values allow you to hold the entire leadership team accountable.
  • Wider team – Founders and leaders behaving in line with company values sets the standard for the entire team to do the same.

Looking at the examples you set, employees can quickly discern whether their conduct and behaviour is in line with the company values (and whether your values align with their own). It encourages them to think before they act and drives a culture of respect within the business. 

Example Value: LinkedIn
“We are open, honest and constructive - By seeking the truth and keeping it real, we are more likely to generate solutions to difficult problems. We welcome and seek constructive feedback so we can learn and grow.”

Setting this shared “code of conduct” builds trust between colleagues, develops a company culture, and clearly outlines the type of business the team is trying to build. 

Shared set of goals

Having a shared set of goals or objectives fosters collaboration, teamwork and focus within a team. Transparency is a proven way to earn employees’ trust, so openly talking about these goals and targets ensures employees are on the same page, giving them purpose and the ability to clearly see how their work impacts broader business objectives. 

Building an objective-driven business and communicating openly on these goals also allows employees to quantify the impact that issues in the wider market will have on the business. Less ambiguity means less stress and more resilience.

If founders and leadership teams have clear goals that need to be adjusted during a downturn, they can clearly communicate the new plan to achieve the revised targets, ensuring that the employee’s sense of purpose and trust remains intact. 

Lack of transparency leads to uncertainty, which ends in stress for employees. Ownership, accountability and shared goals help reduce this. 

2. Building a culture of psychological safety which celebrates vulnerability 

Employees should feel that their opinion, ideas and emotions are valued by their team. When everyone is empowered to share their ideas and full selves with the team, they feel like they are contributing to the overall success of the business. Innovation happens when people bring different perspectives, experiences and learnings to solve a problem. Encouraging all ideas drives that innovation.

This openness must go both ways. Founders and leadership teams should openly communicate (within reason) the challenges that a company may have during this period. When you are honest and open with the wider team, you can then pull everyone together to solve it. Employees who see their business leaders communicating in this way will feel more comfortable talking about their own concerns and worries in a constructive way. The alternative – keeping these challenges a secret – can harm the overall spirit of transparency.

Leading with empathy and earning your employees’ trust will instil a culture of psychological safety from the very top, and encouraging that vulnerability and openness will have domino effects:

  • Ensuring everyone feels safe to express themselves and their opinions leads to more authentic connections between colleagues.  
  • Feeling supported by colleagues makes employees feel more secure and appreciated at work, which will be beneficial when weathering challenging times.
  • Feeling accepted, respected and supported by your colleagues fosters a strong team bond which helps in times of uncertainty.

3. Embedding open communication within your business

As mentioned previously, transparency is vital, and in periods of uncertainty, it’s often best to over-communicate. Openly share the problems your business is facing and lay out how you intend to overcome them. Explain the role each team member will play in the contingency plan to make them feel important, valued and impactful.

Take a step back and evaluate how leadership communicates with your team, gathers feedback, and supports employees. Think through questions such as: 

  • Which channels do you use? 
  • Are they the most effective options? 
  • How often do you do this? 
  • Does your C-Suite have enough touch points with the whole team? 
  • How do you receive feedback from the wider team, beyond your direct reports?
  • What 1-on-1 support do employees have from their line managers? 
  • Do they have the right skills to answer questions and ease concerns? 
  • How can you support them to do this? 

It’s crucial that you offer a safe space for feedback to be given. Junior team members especially appreciate the opportunity to have their opinions and recommendations heard by the business leaders. 

Remember: messages from the leadership team must be aligned. Consistent messaging from business leaders is key to building trust with employees, so they can see the leadership team has a solid plan for this period of uncertainty. 

In summary

In the current downturn, founders have no choice but to lead with empathy and take steps to build resiliency – at the company level and within each individual employee. While times of uncertainty are challenging for leadership, they can be particularly stressful for employees, especially if the organisation lacks transparency and a culture of open idea exchange. 

Resiliency doesn’t come easy, but the framework we’ve laid out is key to helping employees feel valued, supported, and purposeful in the months to come.

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June 22, 2022