When Tragedy Strikes: A Guide for Empathetic Leaders

As a manager, director, pastor, or any other kind of leader, you are expected to understand and manage emotions in yourself and others. This understanding and management is known as emotional intelligence. A lot of focus in the quality of leadership has focused on the traits of successful leaders, particularly surrounding aspects of cognitive abilities and personality [1], but it is increasingly apparent that emotional intelligence is another vital, if not more important, characteristic of successful leaders.

Researchers in industrial organizational psychology tell us that leadership is a process of social interaction where the leader’s ability to influence the behavior of their followers can strongly influence performance outcomes [2]. Despite popular culture portraying successful leaders as unfeeling authoritarians with unbending wills and magical product intuition, good leadership is about emotional management, not commanding orders.

Just look at the recent changes in Microsoft, with the cultural shift brought on by the current CEO, Satya Nadella. Nadella’s brand of leadership can be described best as the “empathetic leader.” In 2014, when Nadella took over the company, he bought all the members of his senior leadership team a copy of the book "Nonviolent Communication". When the fledgling Microsoft AI team released the twitter bot infamously known as Tay, the result was an enormous media debacle as Tay turned into a neo-Nazi sexbot [3]. Microsoft immediately apologized publicly and took Tay offline. At this point in time, Nadella could have given up on the project and dismissed those in charge. Rather than criticize the team, he took the opportunity to put the principles of “Nonviolent Communication” into practice and demonstrated compassionate leadership through addressing his internal employees regarding the impact of Tay:

“Keep pushing, and know that I am with you,” he wrote in an e-mail, urging staffers to take the criticism in the right spirit while exercising "deep empathy for anyone hurt by Tay. (The) key is to keep learning and improving[4].”

This experience also proved formative for Microsoft as it has since developed and led numerous internal and external boards on ethics in AI [5]. The reality is, more often than not, successful management comes from an empathetic leader. In fact, the divisions of the leaders with a critical mass of strengths in emotional intelligence competencies outperformed yearly revenue targets by a margin of 15 to 20 percent [6].

To be a successful empathetic leader requires leaders to be emotionally available, both to perceive and manage the emotions of themselves and their team. As a leader, what should you do when tragedy strikes you or your team?

We’ve all been there before. A breakup, a death, something unexpected. In the moment, it’s easy to get swept up into emotion, and after all, as a society we can both expect and empathize with these swells of sadness, anger, guilt, or whatever flurry of emotions that follow. What we don’t often consider is the impact of the residual pain that follows for the affected.

First let’s start with your team. Even when organizations have bereavement policies or general policies for well being, they are often situated around the initial period surrounding the event and not on the recovery that follows. Often, the expectation in the workplace, even surrounding events such as death, is for employees to resume full responsibilities upon return which can promote what is known as stifled grief. Extensive research demonstrates decreases in workplace productivity when emotional turmoil surrounds an employee, including difficulty in concentration and impaired judgement. The Grief Recovery Institute estimates that the annual cost of grief in the workplace exceeds $75 billion annually [7].

Without the ability to bring the healing process into the workplace, employees are torn between the work self and the grieving self. Unlike countries like Japan where compassionate leave policies for cases like broken hearts exist, US workers are forced to compartmentalize their emotions [8].

This leads to stifled grief in the workplace, which not only delays the healing process but has veritable economic impact to the organization. Despite the ease with which employees and managers can artificially separate their work lives from the personal lives of their co-workers and subordinates, this lack of acknowledgment only serves to increase whatever challenges the griever has coming back into the workplace.

In fact, a study of more than 1,200 employees over a 3 year period revealed that managers who were able to “manage with a human touch” experienced significant increases in work performance. The bottom line is that compassion not only makes you a better person, but results in better business [9].

If you need help explaining this process to your team, consider the following analogy. When you hurt your body, the process of recovery is well understood. First is the moment of injury where the greatest intensity of pain is felt. Afterwards is recovery. We all have certain expectations of what is to come. We expect residual pain, when we move in certain ways or touch certain places. We expect pangs of pain here and there, sometimes on purpose, but often times by mistake when we move improperly. And we expect time. We expect that recovery will take its course and that to overexert is to expose ourselves to reinjury.

And yet we rarely give ourselves or others this space for recovery when it comes to mental health care. As we’ve learned over the last decade or so, the nature of emotional pain is a lot closer to physical pain than we previously imagined. In fact, paralleling results from physical pain studies [10], we find that the anterior cingulate cortex (ACC), a portion of our brain that controls learning, emotions, and other cognitive functions, displays the same brain patterns during emotional pain, as with physical pain. So then feelings of heartache or gut wrenching are beyond metaphors and actual descriptions of pain, when the location itself is not localized to one part of the body.

When you seriously hurt yourself physically, you see a professional. This professional, often medical doctor, will treat the immediate injury using their education and training to ensure your body is in a position to heal itself. Consider a simple example of breaking a bone. Without the aid of a doctor and a cast, you put yourself at risk of malunion fractures or worse which can lead you disabled for life. Luckily today, standard procedures for broken bones call for an x-ray, your bones to be properly set, and a cast to help direct proper healing. From there, you are expected to care for yourself with  physical therapy, allowing your body time to recover.

Why not treat our minds with the same care as our bodies? The next time something unexpected happens and you find yourself or others in deep emotional pain, see a professional who can prepare and guide you through your recovery—as you would see a doctor for any physical ailments. And if you know of someone who is going through this deep emotional pain, whether in the workplace or elsewhere, remember that their pain, though not physical, is very real. Give them time to recover and understand that like all injuries, they may not be 100%, and will not for some time. At the very least, understand the number one item that employees look for in times of grief is acknowledgment and to feel like they can discuss their pain with those around them [11].

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[1] Zaccaro, Stephen J., Cary Kemp, and Paige Bader. "Leader traits and attributes." The nature of leadership 101 (2004): 124.

[2] Humphrey,2002; Pirola-Merloet al., 2002

[3] https://www.technologyreview.com/s/610634/microsofts-neo-nazi-sexbot-was-a-great-lesson-for-makers-of-ai-assistants/

[4] https://www.usatoday.com/story/tech/news/2017/02/20/microsofts-satya-nadella-counting-culture-shock-drive-growth/98011388/

[5] https://www.microsoft.com/en-us/ai/our-approach-to-ai

[6] McClelland, David C. (1998). Identifying competencies with behavioral-event interviews. Psychological Science, 9(5), 331-340.

[7] James J. W. , Friedman R. (2003). Grief index: The _hidden_ annual costs of grief in America's workplace. The Grief Recovery Institute Educational Foundation, Inc.

[8] Bento, R. F. 1994. When the show must go on: Disenfranchised grief in organizations. Journal of Managerial Psychology, 9(6): 35-44

[9] Amabile, Teresa M., and Steven J. Kramer. "Inner work life." Harvard business review 85.5 (2007): 72-83.

[10] Eisenberger, Naomi I. "The pain of social disconnection: examining the shared neural underpinnings of physical and social pain." Nature Reviews Neuroscience 13.6 (2012): 421.

[11] Manns, Mary. (2011). Grief and compassion in the workplace.