By Ben Colvin, US Partner Coach, New York

Raise your hand if you have a case of crisis fatigue. Let’s face it, who doesn’t? The pandemic. Global conflicts. Economic uncertainties. Mass layoffs. And that’s only a few of the headline-grabbing crises we’ve faced over the past few years.  

Human beings are set up to handle temporary high-stress situations pretty well. It’s when they go on and on (and on) that we start to experience the effects of crisis fatigue. For business leaders, the responsibility to provide support, direction, and answers amid the uncertainty adds an extra sense of pressure. As I consult with clients, it’s become increasingly clear. We all need to cut ourselves some slack. But many leaders struggle with how to practice self-compassion while leading. Here’s a perspective on how to start.

Set your ego aside

Navigating ever-evolving market environments requires businesses to be agile. For some of us, that means letting go of perfectionist tendencies and taking our ego out of the equation. Instead, we need to consciously shift our focus to decision-making based on the best available information and doing what’s right for the company without worrying about who’s going to get the credit or the blame.

As a leader, admitting you don’t have all the answers can be freeing. For your team, it can be empowering. I recommend actively practicing curiosity. Seek out information and expertise. Ask questions and solicit ideas. Gather input but recognize it’s not possible to have all the information you would like. Then, be decisive.

Your teams will respect your candor and interest in learning. They will follow you, not because they think you have everything figured out, but because they understand the decision-making process and the factors you’ve considered. They’ll feel empowered to take appropriate risks, innovate, and make decisions – which is exactly how you want your teams to respond in a crisis.

Practice compassion with yourself and others

Leaders have to make tough decisions. It’s in the job description. For example, you may have to cut expenses, lay off employees, or pause popular initiatives. Of course, you want to execute these decisions with empathy. The key is not to let your empathy stop you from making the tough calls.

This is where you need to recognize the difference between empathy and compassion – and practice both. Great leaders have the capacity to sense another person’s emotions and imagine what they might be thinking or feeling. That’s empathy, and it’s imperative as team members react to uncertainty and change, each in their own way and based on their unique situations.

The challenge with empathy is that it can be limited by our unconscious biases, making us feel stuck or frustrated by the problems of “others.” However, when we allow empathy to spark curiosity and compassion, we enable ourselves to take action. In other words, we listen, we understand, and we ask, “how can I help?”

By authentically asking the question and following through with support, we accomplish something that makes us, as human beings, feel good. While empathy without action can be draining in the long term, helping someone find a solution triggers a hit of dopamine that provides a sense of well-being.

Compassion is a skill we can enhance through practice. A good first step is having compassion for yourself. As leaders, we must proactively manage our own stress in order to be able to assist others, especially when faced with a crisis. This means doing the fundamentals – getting enough sleep, maintaining good exercise habits, and taking regular breaks from work. It also means taking it up a notch – and not feeling guilty about it – when dealing with extended stress.

Take care

With all the challenges the outside world throws at us, we must take the time to actively pursue joy. Stop and listen to a favorite piece of music. Take a walk outside after a meeting. Carve out time to disconnect and meditate. Most importantly, let go of the self-criticism and obsessing about what you could have done better or differently.

It’s easy to feel isolated as a leader. Counteract that by cultivating a network of colleagues, peers, mentors, coaches, and other trusted advisors. Carve out time to engage with your network regularly – and seek added support when you’re under pressure.

When you cut yourself some slack as both a leader and a person, it’s not selfish. You can’t help others if you’re over-stressed or burned out. The ability to have genuine compassion for others comes from having compassion for ourselves.

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