Leadership & Management

How to Be a Better Leader Using Persona-Based Empathy

By John Estafanous

ceo & founder, RallyBright

July 9, 2020

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As we continue to make our way through this prolonged pandemic and significant cultural shifts, many of us are experiencing unprecedented disruption in our professional and personal lives. One ability we have in our resilience toolkit as humans is our capacity for empathy –  a psychological identification with the thoughts, feelings and attitudes of others. If you lead a team,  ensuring you’re leading with empathy is one of the most important investments you can make in your organization right now.

Empathy, along with the other four components of emotional intelligence, has gotten a lot of attention over the months of the COVID-19 crisis. That’s because, in times of great stress and hardship, leading with empathy is the best approach to keeping employees engaged. Research on empathy-based leadership has also shown that it boosts productivity, performance, happiness and collaboration; results that have led many management professionals to believe that empathy is the most important leadership skill

The Route to Meaningful Empathy

One way to build empathy is to leverage personas. Personas are imagined “characters” that marketers, product designers and others create to help them gain a better understanding of customers and marketing segments. But personas can also be a powerful tool when working with your internal teams.

Employee personas are important because they attempt to identify the different needs of different groups of employees. One thing we hear over and over again from the teams using our platform is the wide range of employee reactions to the changes and stresses of the pandemic. This, of course, means that they have different needs from their managers and companies. 

Empathy Mapping

We know empathy is important, so what is the best way to make sure we’re creating our personas with an empathetic approach? You may have heard of a process called “empathy mapping.” It’s a pillar of design thinking that designers and others who want to create user-centric products and experiences employ. In a nutshell, an empathy map provides a blueprint of prompts that help a team identify a target group’s requirements. The prompts serve to help the team systematically consider a group’s thoughts, feelings, motivations, desires and needs. By pairing empathy mapping with personas, leaders and managers can gain a simple and clear understanding of the needs and drivers of their people and then customize their support accordingly. 

To create the personas in your organization, look at factors like their generation, how long they have been in the workforce, their technology use and habits, their family status (e.g. do they have a spouse/partner or children), and any other key information that may affect how they live and work. The following four personas, which are common in the workplace today, can serve as a starting point in figuring out your own team’s needs – the first step in leading with empathy. 

Common Employee Personas

The Empty Nesters 

These older workers are done housing any children they raised or have older children that can manage themselves. They often consider work a huge part of their identities. They have been going into the office daily for decades and are moored by this routine. Less adaptable and technologically savvy than their younger colleagues, many have struggled with the logistics and changed routine of working from home. 

The “I’ve Got This” Group 

Most commonly Gen Xers, this group of workers is most able to go with the flow and adapt. Their biggest challenge during the pandemic is likely their heavy workloads as managers and leaders. Generally, however, they are not overwhelmed with the responsibilities or adaptation to change that their older and younger colleagues are facing. 

The “This Is Really Tough” Group 

These workers are commonly older Millennials and younger Gen Xers. Many of them have young children at home and are juggling their own work with helping their kids navigate online learning or socially-distanced summer recreation. Others have no good physical space to work, limited by small apartments or multiple roommates. These employees are the most overwhelmed and find it difficult to schedule meetings or block out time for work because of competing demands on their time and energy. Many feel trapped.   

The “I’m All Alone” Group

For many members of this group of younger millennials and older Gen Zs, social interaction at work is their lifeblood. They typically live alone and draw most of their identity from showing up at work and being social there. Somewhat typical for younger workers, they need the daily validation and affirmation that work can provide. Like the workers a bit older than they are, this group is struggling, but with loneliness.

A subset of this group may be less social and more introverted. These employees may need help but may not be forthcoming about it. They may start missing meetings or skipping video appearances. We’ve talked to several leaders who see both types of members of this group slipping into depression. What’s more, many of them are unfamiliar with depression and don’t recognize its signs in themselves. It’s a real risk for everyone in this group. 

4 Questions for Creating a Quick Empathy Map

Once you’ve identified your employee personas, it’s time to start mapping. While many empathy maps are very detailed, it doesn’t take a huge effort to create a quick one that will help you improve your employees’ experience by leading with empathy. Start with these four questions: 

  • What drives this group of employees? 
  • What are the goals of this group of employees? 
  • What are its pain points? 
  • Given the above, how can I/my company best support this group?

Let’s take the Empty Nester group above as an example. Answers for this group may look like this: 

  • Drivers: Feeling accomplished, mentoring others, being an “expert”
  • Goals: Recognition and respect from the team
  • Pain Points: Discomfort with schedule disruption and new technologies
  • How to best Support them: Stay consistent with 1:1s and team meetings. Share recognition and feedback via email and during calls. Give them the right tools and training (for example, offer to send tech or tech support to their homes.)

For the “This Is Really Tough” group, answers will look more like this: 

  • Drivers: Getting their work done, possibly managing others
  • Goals: Productivity and sane work-life balance
  • Pain Points: Overwhelmed with combined home and work responsibilities and not enough time 
  • How to best Support them: Flexibility is key. Try to adapt to these employees’ schedules for 1:1s and team meetings and understand absences. Share feedback and recognition/support during check-ins (possibly increase them if schedules allow). Provide summaries for meetings and in order to ease the making of group decisions when teams can’t meet. Finally, encourage these employees  to take time if they need it, and to leverage wellness offers from your organization. These employees need you to be proactive about reaching out.

Leading With Empathy Can Make All the Difference

There’s a lot none of us can control right now, but one thing we can do is take the time and effort to thoughtfully support our colleagues. By leading with empathy – using tools like persona-based empathy maps to put ourselves in others’ shoes, listening actively, and continually developing our communication skills  – we can grow into better leaders leading happier, healthier and more productive teams. 

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