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Thought Leadership

Leading With Empathy

Two businessman talking while seated next to each other at a desk.

As organizations continue to navigate a global pandemic and focus efforts on developing equity and inclusion within their teams, leading with empathy is more important than ever. On top of bottom-line objectives, leaders are challenged with ensuring their employees feel connected, valued and supported as they continue to work together but apart.

One powerful way to demonstrate vulnerability and empathy while fostering personal connection is through the art of strategic storytelling, according to Heidi Schultz, a management and corporate communication professor at UNC Kenan-Flagler Business School. She has taught storytelling in several UNC programs over the past decade, helping future leaders harness this influential craft.

“As we experience ongoing professional isolation – together but not really in so many contexts – we have an opportunity to use storytelling to transcend our separation, to share our experiences, and to find comfort in those narrative connections,” she says. “Some companies have asked their employees and their customers to share stories about how they’re coping during COVID-19, and the result is nothing short of powerful.”

Not only do leaders need to find creative and meaningful ways to engage and inspire their people, but they also face pressing issues of organizational diversity, equity, and inclusion (DEI), exacerbated by an increasingly remote workplace. While it can feel challenging to find steps towards real change in this time, empathy, vulnerability, and personal relationships are necessary foundations of this work.

UNC Professor Elizabeth Dickinson is often asked these tough questions: “How do I do this DEI work? How do I make larger change?”

“People tend to think this work is about examining other people, and to an extent it is,” says Elizabeth. “But we always start with our self. We look at understanding the topics and who we are. And then we connect with others through relationships, intimacy, empathy and dialogue. Finally, together, relationships work to change organizational habits. That’s how larger change happens.”

For leaders focused on tactical strategic objectives, it can be difficult to slow down and honor core human needs: to feel supported, to belong, to be respected. Leaders who recognize the power of these fundamental desires and prioritize them in the workplace will find they are able to not only engage and inspire employees, but also achieve progress towards organizational and business objectives.