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Sitting in my home office near Chicago this morning, you can feel the transition beginning. Fall is near.

Looking out the front windows at my wife’s garden, you can see the transition happening. The leaves on the trees, and her plants, are changing color.

Some are becoming brittle and falling to the ground, no longer being nourished by their branches as they were just a few weeks ago. What an apt metaphor for what we have all be going through since March 2020.

We have all been changing. The customs, habits, patterns of our life that once nurtured us are gone, or irrevocably changed.

Our colors have shifted, and many of us are feeling brittle and vulnerable. The adage, “the only constant is change” certainly applies to the period we are moving through

In their book, Leadership on the Line, Linsky and Heifetz note that “people don’t resist change…they resist loss”. Have you thought about change as loss? 

Even when change is due to the best circumstances, it requires us to lose something – whether it be a routine, a relationship, familiarity, a place that holds memories, convenience, a reputation, a known experience.

Change means unknowns. Change means having to relearn something.

Change requires you to face the reality that you’re not in control. And change often makes us face things within ourselves that we conveniently avoid when things were status quo.

An international study by The Sun out the UK found the following:
  • 75% of the respondents worried life would never return to normal after COVID 19.
  • 59% said they could not use shared workspaces without being scared of contracting or spreading the deadly virus.
  • 35% of the respondents said they are afraid of returning to their workplace for fear of infecting their loved ones.
  • 63% of the respondents believe their jobs will never revert to pre-pandemic normality.
  • Over six in 10 workers believe their boss didn’t handle the WFH transition as seamlessly as they could have done.
  • 67% of the employed respondents felt that their superiors didn’t understand the struggles of remote work when they have kids at home.
  • 64% of participants, who are childless, felt they weren’t as productive due to heightened stress levels and pandemic anxiety.

 

Change, loss, stress, anxiety, fear, and no control; this soup of emotions can be defined in a single word, grief. Grief is what a vast majority of people are feeling today in one form or another. 

It is not a word we use a great deal when talking about our teams, leaders, or ourselves in a business context, but never the less. It is what we are feeling.

As leaders understanding this fact, and naming it, will help us understand how to work with ourselves, our teams, and our customers.

Leading in this time of transition will require us to use leadership muscles that, all to often, we have not sufficiently exercised in the business arena.

New Muscles Required

Because people are scared, anxious, and overwhelmed (griefing), they need to know that their organization understands what they are going through. (Re-read the study above.)

Grief is in the background of every interaction they have (whether they admit it or not), and if you ignore that fact, you will have people either burning out or turning out. Either way, talented people will be sidelined.

So, how do you address those things that people aren’t comfortable discussing in a work setting?

It starts with having and showing empathy.

Empathy.

Oxford defines empathy as: The ability to understand and share the feelings of another.

In their January 17, 2020, Recruter.com’s The Innovators described empathy as follows:

“1. Cognitive Empathy

Also known as “perspective-taking,” this type of empathy is about understanding another person’s emotional state. Employees who show cognitive empathy are able to easily interpret other people’s thoughts and feelings, which helps them determine the best way to move forward in difficult situations. Because of this, cognitive empathy is critical for building comfortable, flexible work environments that support all your employees’ goals, abilities, and aspirations.

Do not confuse empathy with sympathy. A typical example of empathy is accurately detecting when someone is afraid and needs encouragement.

A typical example of sympathy is feeling sorry for someone who has lost a loved one.

Empathy is a skill that you can learn, and you can start by practicing how you behave in your relationships. During conversations, focus your full attention and time on listening and only then doing whatever you can so the person feels understood.

To accurately perceive his feelings, you can ask questions: “It sounds like you’re feeling dejected. Is that right?” Or, “Is it fair to say that you’re feeling optimistic?”

Finally, understand that moving past grief will take time, patience, and deliberate practice. 

If a leader can build her muscles for having empathy, not only will she end up with a high-performing, more dedicated team, she will also be better able to deal with her fear, anxiety, and grief.

Truly the ultimate win-win.