How to be an empathetic leader in times of change | EL Campus Learn, Share, Connect

I challenge you to identify the different types of leaders you have met throughout your time in the higher education system. You most likely know a leader who has an authoritarian leadership style, in which he takes ownership and control of all the decisions he makes. I suspect you’ll also recall a leader who demonstrates a laissez-faire style: a laid-back person who lets his people take charge of their work, provides little day-to-day guidance, and only steps in to provide support when needed. You may also be able to identify transformational leaders and constructivist leaders. All of these types of leadership can be effective, and even necessary, within the ES environment.

However, in recent years, there have been many challenges and changes to the HE system, the likes of which we have never encountered before. All leaders have had to consider, and at times modify, their leadership style to better enable their teams to navigate the relentless disruption of the status quo.

The drivers for change have ranged, from the rise, if not dominance, of online learning to a workforce desperately trying to transition to working from home to enable a better work-life balance. We are all aware that many of the changes have also been framed and defined by a pandemic, where staff and their families have been subjected to high rates of illness and a regimen of mandatory isolation rules. Never before have leaders faced so many challenges, and yet they still had to deliver.

Regardless of our preferred leadership approach, leaders have had to adjust to a more empathic style. Below are some examples of how empathy can be integrated into day-to-day leadership in the higher education sector.

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

The staff is the largest and most important asset of any higher education institution. In fact, they are the very face of the institution. But above all they are people, with the consequent pressures of life, health and family. By taking a genuine interest in the health and well-being of our staff, we are acknowledging and acknowledging that these challenges can affect focus, productivity and well-being. While it’s not natural behavior for an authoritarian leader, asking your staff “Are you okay?” It may sound trite, but giving them permission to say “no” will create a culture of genuine care and concern that allows staff to feel valued as individuals, not just assets to the institution.

2. Be an active advocate for your staff’s careers

“Where do you see yourself in the future?” By asking staff about their career aspirations and goals, you will be in a good position to advocate for them effectively in the future. When staff are aware that their leaders seek to develop them, offer them opportunities, and see them as someone with potential, they feel valued. However, you must move on, as your actions will speak louder than your words.

3. Focus on results for your staff

Working collaboratively with staff to identify and agree on a clear set of deliverables and performance expectations can challenge the notion of being an empathetic leader and will not come naturally to a laissez-faire leader. However, framing the conversation is key. If everyone understands the expectations, staff can focus on the effective and efficient delivery of educational priorities instead of worrying about visibility in the ES environment or the amount of overtime worked. A focus on results demonstrates trust between leaders and staff, which will ultimately flow into student learning and research results.

4. Communicate with empathy

The words matter. As leaders, never before have we had to actively listen to so many varied and valid concerns that staff have raised with us. While it is impossible to solve all of them, simply acknowledging as a leader that we have listened to them in a compassionate and empathetic way goes a long way. Sometimes we can offer flexibility, and this can lead to a problem being resolved quickly and easily. However, sometimes we have to say no; delivering this message with empathy is important.

5. Be nice, everyone is trying to do their best

Most staff come to work at universities with a strong desire to always do what is best for students. Sometimes as leaders we need to make a decision that is not popular. 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 acknowledges that staff are doing their best.

Regardless of your leadership style, by incorporating empathy we can deliver great results for our staff and students while fostering a nurturing work culture.

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

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