How to be an empathetic leader during times of change

No one style is the panacea for all leadership challenges but, as Rachel Gibson explains, empathy is a crucial ingredient for leadership success

Rachel Gibson's avatar
25 Nov 2022
bookmark plus
  • Top of page
  • Main text
  • More on this topic
bookmark plus
Leading with empathy is more important than ever in HE

Created in partnership with

Created in partnership with

The University of Adelaide

You may also like

How leaders can seize higher ed’s ‘catalytic moment for change’
Leadership game of chess king. University leaders have a unique opportunity to lead change in the HE sector

I challenge you to identify the different types of leaders you have known throughout your time in the higher education system. Chances are you will know a leader who has an authoritarian leadership style, where they assume ownership and control of all the decisions they make. I suspect you will also remember a leader who demonstrates a laissez-faire style – a chilled-out person who enables their staff to take ownership of their work, providing little day-to-day guidance and only stepping in to provide support when required. You will likely also be able to identify transformational leaders and constructivist leaders. All these leadership types can be effective, and even necessary, within the HE environment.

However, in recent years, there have been many challenges and changes in the HE system, the likes of which we have not previously encountered. All leaders have had to consider, and at times modify, their style of leading to best enable their teams to navigate the relentless disruption to the status quo.

Drivers of change have varied, from the emergence – if not dominance – of online learning through to a workforce desperately trying to pivot 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 have leaders been so challenged – and still had to deliver.

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

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

Staff are the biggest and most important asset of any HE institution. Indeed, they are the very face of the institution. But they are people first and foremost, with the attendant pressures of life, health and family. By taking a genuine interest in the health and well-being of our staff, we are recognising and acknowledging that these challenges can affect focus, productivity and well-being. While not a natural behaviour for an authoritarian leader, asking your staff “Are you OK?” may seem trite, but giving them permission to say “no” will build a culture of care and genuine concern that enables staff to feel valued as people, not just assets for the institution.

2. Be an active advocate for the careers of your staff

“Where do you see yourself in the future?” By asking staff about their career aspirations and goals, you will be well placed to effectively advocate for them in the future. When staff are aware that their leaders are seeking to develop them, offer them opportunities and see them as someone who has potential, they feel valued. You must follow through, though, as your actions will speak louder than your words.

3. Be outcomes-focused for your staff

Working collaboratively with staff to identify and agree a clear set of deliverables and performance expectations may 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 everybody understands expectations, staff can focus on effective and efficient delivery of education priorities rather than be concerned with visibility in the HE setting or the number of excess hours being worked. A focus on outcomes demonstrates trust between leaders and staff, which will ultimately flow on to student learning and research outcomes.

4. Communicate with empathy

Words matter. Never before have we as leaders had to actively listen to as many varied and valid concerns staff have been raising with us. While it is impossible to solve them all, simply acknowledging as a leader that we’ve heard them in a compassionate and empathetic manner goes a long way. Sometimes, we can offer flexibility, and this can lead to a problem being solved quickly and easily. However, sometimes we have to say no; delivering this message with empathy is important.

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

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

Regardless of the leadership style you have, by incorporating empathy we can deliver excellent outcomes for our staff and students while fostering a nurturing workplace culture.

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

If you found this interesting and want advice and insight from academics and university staff delivered direct to your inbox each week, sign up for the THE Campus newsletter.


You may also like

sticky sign up

Register for free

and unlock a host of features on the THE site