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How do I portray myself as a leader? How do I engage my team? How do we get them to stay productive and, at the same time, connect with them emotionally? And, most importantly, for us as leaders, how do we deal with the uncertainty we ourselves are facing?

These are the key questions leaders are asking in these times. Being a leader is a lonely job and it can be hard to share your true concerns and express how you feel to the people who report to you. In times of crisis, the things that matter most are managing your own emotions as a leader. Not only are we dealing with the COVID-19 pandemic, but we’re also dealing with emotional contagion. Emotions are contagious and transmit quickly in a team.

What is emotional contagion?

Early in my career, I worked as a financial analyst. The days leading up to a board meeting were usually filled with trepidation. The tension in the office was palpable. Everybody in the office walked on eggshells around the CFO. Nobody wanted to get in his way or make any mistakes. How he felt and dealt with a situation on a given day would set the tone for each one at the office on the day.

As leaders, we are ‘stuck in the middle’ as we deal with the pressure from the top and absorb the anxiety of our own teams. It’s only natural that when we experience pressure, our instinct is to transmit that downwards – to the people who report to us. But being in the center also gives us the opportunity to break the transmission of emotional contagion and manage the message objectively for our own sanity and that of our teams.

Understand that how you’re feeling emotionally has a very strong influence on the emotional climate of your team. What you’re experiencing on a daily basis is transmitted to your team and you have the ability to change it. In times of uncertainty and crises, people are not always sure how to behave, so they look to their leaders for guidance.

The questions that you as a leader have are the same questions those who report directly to you have:

  • How should I react?
  • What should I focus on?

When we’re in the midst of a crisis, it’s common to turn inward and not communicate openly. The absence of clear and formal communication leads to reliance on the grapevine as people hold onto any information that reduces uncertainty. The most vocal person on your team begins to gain more influence and leads on an emotional level.

How you behave right now sets the precedent for how your team responds and how much of themselves they put into their work. Creating the right environment directly impacts their productivity. When people feel secure, content, and happy, they engage the prefrontal cortex that is responsible for a higher level of cognitive thinking, strategic decision-making, and problem-solving.

Our role as leaders needs to shift from residing in the state of fear to creating a positive environment, where people are comfortable talking about what they’re going through. Not only do we shift our own emotional state, but that of our teams. If you have high expectations and demand results, focus on creating a positive emotional climate for your team. Research shows that positive emotional states can increase performance by 25–30%. 

In the next few articles, I will share three important tools that you can use to deal with your own fear of uncertainty, lead effectively and engage your teams.

The business case for compassionate leadership

During a crisis, we shift into a take-charge mode. This mode is usually based on leading with the head and focuses primarily on logic and problem-solving, both of which are important. However, what is going to engage your people is taking a slightly different approach. And that’s where compassionate leadership comes in. Compassionate leadership is about leading more with your heart than leading only with your head.

Compassionate leadership is different from just being empathetic because it focuses on being proactive. It leads to actions that improve the well-being of your team. While empathy is about saying, “John, I understand this is a difficult situation,” compassionate leadership is rolling up your sleeves and saying, “John, this is difficult, tell me how we can help. Let’s figure out how we can find a solution to that.”

In a crisis, people need direction and want to know that, you as the leader are in the trenches with them. That’s why leaders need to stay focused on helping others, shifting the focus off of their own fears and strengthening their own resilience. If you’re engaged in helping John figure out how to handle a situation, you are more likely to forget the things that are bothering you. You can be more proactive, better at problem-solving, and create a connection with your team. When you’re not leading from your ivory tower, but get into the trenches with your team members, you invest in them and support them as you become the person clearing the roadblocks for them.

In the book Start-up Nation, Dan Senor and Saul Singer talk about leadership and innovation in Israel. When people serve together in dire circumstances, they connect and bond on a deep emotional level. Shared experiences during difficult times increase their loyalty towards each other and to acknowledge the importance of each team member.

As a leader, if you’re concerned about improving employee engagement and motivation, being there for your team in tough situations is a great opportunity. Not only does it have a direct impact on your team’s ability to perform at a higher level during a crisis but also increases their intrinsic motivation. Instead of driving employee engagement by looking at extrinsic motivation and pushing your team, showing up as a compassionate leader will go a long way.

Research shows that leaders who display a high level of compassion have teams that are “more apt to go the extra mile” to a fully inclusive workplace!

How to build your compassionate leadership muscle

Start with self-leadership. You can’t exhibit compassionate leadership when you can’t bring self-compassion to yourself. Here is a quick exercise to build self-compassion.

Step 1: Become aware of your own emotions

Think about a difficult situation that you might be dealing with right now, whether it’s on a work or personal level. It’s a situation that isn’t too hard to resolve, yet it is bothering you. What emotions are you feeling? Acknowledge the emotions that you’re going through right now. Become aware of what you might be feeling about the situation.

Step 2: Learn to offer a response to one’s expression of emotions

Write a note as if you were comforting a dear friend or a loved one who is going through a difficult situation. Encourage them and convey your words of wisdom or advice – anything that you feel will bring some comfort to them.

Step 3: Imagine what it’s like to be on the receiving end of your response

Now address this letter to yourself. Instead of “Dear friend,” dedicate this letter to yourself. Pause for a moment and see how it feels to receive these words of kindness and support. Is this letter consistent with the way you usually talk to yourself? Do you use the same tone in the letter to talk to yourself?

In the midst of a crisis, we can get so caught up with what’s going on around us that we tend to be more critical of ourselves. Change your inner conversation to be kinder to yourself and less judgmental. Start with compassionate leadership towards yourself first.

Exercises to practice compassionate leadership

Most meetings center around agendas, status updates, assignments, timelines, etc. While all of these are important elements of an effective meeting, a key component is missing – the emotional connection. Why should we care about emotional connection anyway?

People connect at an emotional level. When there’s fear and uncertainty, the question they ask is “Can you lead me emotionally?”

Introduce this element in your meetings to proactively manage and guide emotional energy. Think of how you want your team members feeling as much as you want them thinking of the actions and results you want them to achieve.


Emotional icebreakers are a great way to manage energy. They could be as simple as asking, “What are you grateful for today? What are we celebrating today?” Another question to ask is “When have you felt a really strong purpose in your work?” Get people to recount what it was like working on a project to create a sense of bonding by reliving the shared experience.

Team meetings

Another exercise that works well is including an opportunity to express your appreciation in team meetings. Start off by giving a team member a genuine compliment about how they helped you or made a difference to you. For example, “I really appreciated when Mary offered to help me finish that report when I had so many things on my plate.” You could use a round-robin approach and have team members take turns to appreciate something that someone on the team did for them. Why does this exercise work so well? Not only does it affirm and recognize what a team member that might generally go unnoticed does, but also gets other team members to view this person in a different light. Appreciation and recognition for one’s efforts is often a bigger motivator than money. Incorporate a few extra minutes in your meeting to show appreciation and you will see a huge difference in the way your team relates to you and other team members.


Think of somebody on your team that you’ve really had a challenge working with. Take a minute to think of them outside of work, as far as their spouse and their children are concerned, and ask this question, “What could this person possibly be dealing with?” Assume she acts with the best intentions. What behaviors of hers do you appreciate?

Do you notice the way you feel about this person? Is the emotion still as intense or harsh as you were feeling before you did this exercise?

Video meetings

If you’re leading your team virtually, insist on a video meeting where you can see everyone. Text messages and phone calls might be easy and convenient, but words are only 7% of your communication. The ability to see someone smile, make eye contact, read body language, and watch other non-verbal cues is far more effective in helping us connect on an emotional level.

These are a few ideas you can easily implement with your team right now to improve engagement, motivation and develop your own compassionate leadership style.

Article written by:

Yamini Virani

Founder and Author Celebrus Business Strategy

T: +254-774-940-729 


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