How to be an Empathetic Leader in Times of Change| THE campus Learn, share, connect

I challenge you to identify the different types of leaders you have known throughout your time in the higher education system. Chances are you know a leader who has an authoritarian leadership style where they take ownership and control of all the decisions they make. I suspect you will also remember a leader who demonstrates a laissez-faire style – a relaxed person who allows employees to take responsibility for their work, who gives little guidance on a day-to-day basis and only steps in when needed, to provide support. You will likely be able to identify transformational leaders and constructivist leaders as well. All of these types of leadership can be effective and even necessary in the higher education environment.

However, in recent years there have been many challenges and changes in the higher education system that we have not experienced before. All leaders have had to rethink, and occasionally change, their leadership styles to best position their teams to manage the relentless disruption of the status quo.

The drivers of change have been varied, from the emergence – if not dominance – of online learning to a workforce desperate to work from home to provide a better work-life balance. We are all aware that many of the changes have also been framed and defined by a pandemic, which has left employees and their families exposed to high rates of illness and a regime of mandatory isolation rules. Managers have never been so challenged – and still had to deliver.

Regardless of our preferred approach to leadership, leaders have had to adapt to a more empathetic style. Below are some examples of how empathy can be embedded into everyday leadership in higher education.

1. Take a genuine interest in the health and well-being of your employees

The staff is the largest and most important asset of any university. In fact, they are the face of the institution. But they are first and foremost people with the associated burdens of life, health and family. By taking a serious interest in the health and well-being of our employees, we recognize and acknowledge that these challenges can impact focus, productivity and well-being. While it’s not natural behavior for an authoritarian leader, asking your employees, “Are you okay?” may seem banal, but giving them permission to say “no” will build a culture of caring and genuine concern, which allows employees to feel valued as people, not just as an asset to the institution.

2. Actively support the careers of your employees

“Where do you see yourself in the future?” By asking employees about their career aspirations and goals, you’ll be well-positioned to effectively advocate for them in the future. When employees are aware that their leaders develop them, offer them opportunities and see them as someone with potential, they feel valued. However, you must persevere as your actions speak louder than your words.

3. Be results-oriented for your employees

Working with employees to identify and agree on a clear set of outcomes and performance expectations can challenge the notion of an empathetic leader and is not a given for a laissez-faire leader. However, the context of the conversation is crucial. When everyone understands expectations, staff can focus on effectively and efficiently delivering on educational priorities instead of worrying about visibility in the college environment or the amount of overtime worked. A focus on outcomes demonstrates the trust between leaders and employees that ultimately impacts student learning and research outcomes.

4. Communicate with empathy

words matter. Never before have we, as leaders, had to actively listen to so many diverse and legitimate concerns that employees have brought to us. While it’s impossible to resolve them all, as a leader, simply acknowledging that we’ve listened to them in a compassionate and empathetic way goes a long way. Sometimes we can offer flexibility and this can mean that an issue is resolved quickly and easily. However, sometimes we have to say no; It is important to deliver this message with empathy.

5. Be friendly, everyone tries to do their best

The majority of staff come to universities with a strong desire to always do their best for the students. Sometimes as leaders we have to make a decision that is unpopular. I challenge leaders to always be kind, regardless of the decision they have to make. Explaining to staff with confidence and kindness why the decision was made confirms that staff are doing their best.

Regardless of your leadership style, by incorporating empathy we can achieve excellent outcomes for our staff and students while fostering an enabling workplace culture.

Rachel Gibson is Director of the School of Allied Health Science and Practice at the University of Adelaide, Australia.

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