Coaching Through Change: Empathy + Agility in Performance Management

Empathy and Agility in Leadership emPerform

To say that the past year has been challenging is an understatement. Change is stressful at the best of times, and these have not been the best of times. 

Indeed, change has been the only constant. Companies that could pivot quickly have managed to thrive, but those changes have not been without trials. Employee burnout is at an all-time high, and it’s up to you, as a leader, to coach them through the change.

Of course, worker burnout is nothing new. According to a Gallup study released in 2018, about 23 percent of full-time employees felt they were burned out all the time, while an additional 44 percent said they were burned out some of the time. 

Now, after almost nine months of working within a strict and ever-changing regulatory framework, we see these concerns greatly amplified. For employees working remotely, the lines between work life and home life continue to blur. Stress levels are off the charts, economic and personal uncertainty are present, mental and physical health concerns are on the rise, and for many, these struggles are pushing them to a breaking point. 

Burnout by the Numbers: The COVID Factor

A global study recently published by The Workforce Institute found that about a third of employees trust their employers more now than they did before the pandemic. But only two-thirds say that their company has done enough to protect them from burnout. The most prevalent comment among those workers is that they wish their employers were more empathetic. To define empathetic – it is the ability to understand and share feelings with one and another. In the context of workers with their employers, this signals that they feel their employer’s ‘human component’ is missing or perhaps that their employer is not being ‘real.’ A result of this perception of absent empathy is that employees could be experiencing burnout and that burnout may go unaddressed or unnoticed. Burnout is costly and destructive, and companies are quickly learning that what they did before to curve burnout is not working in the new world. 

Empathy Is The Solution

Burnout, fatigue, worry about job security—and for those who must be in a physical workplace around others, anxiety about contracting COVID-19—are top concerns. While there’s little you can do to change these scenarios, there is plenty you can do as a leader to improve these staff concerns. It all starts with empathy. You can’t change what’s happening globally, but you can certainly ensure your employees feel valued and heard. 

Stress is a reality for every person. Anxiety ebbs and flows through our lives, and then, suddenly, one more thing happens, and you drop off the proverbial cliff, and it becomes too much to manage. If you feel this personally, you are not alone. Small stressors and big ones have that added impact lately. The “final straw” could be anything. It might be somebody eating your yogurt out of the communal fridge, or it could be a coworker dropping the ball on their part of a big project and leaving you holding the bag. The point is, it’s bound to happen. 

As a leader, it’s your role to take your ego and bias out of the equation, step outside of your purview (productivity and the bottom line), actively listen so you can get to the heart of your employee’s concerns, and then take the appropriate action to prevent drifting into the red zone. This may seem like a big task, considering ‘managers’ are dealing with the same stresses and unknowns as their employees, but it’s your job as a leader to lead – through both normalcy and adversity. 

Empathy + Agility = Leadership

In light of our circumstances’ fluidity, empathy, and agility are today’s most critical leadership skills and are essential when re-tooling and evolving your performance management strategy to meet the needs of today’s workforce. It’s more than staying one step ahead of the curve; you must also learn to recognize when particular strategies aren’t working anymore and be ready to adjust when needed. 

Here’s how leading employers are displaying empathy & leadership in performance management to coach employees through change:

Give Employees Time to Recharge

Recognizing the mounting burnout, some companies reacted by giving their employees Fridays off. However, this only led to more stress as the workload had not changed. If you genuinely want to remove the pressure, you must also reduce the workload. Don’t place added burdens on your teams, or you’ll hasten the inevitable. Managers should recognize the signs of burnout and work closely with employees to ensure they have the time needed to recharge their batteries before it becomes a more significant issue. Some companies are offering flexible remote schedules, time in lieu, and added personal time to ensure employees can balance work and life during this time where, for many, they are happening in the same place.

Update Goals & Expectations

Companies must take a step back and evaluate the reality of company goals and how they cascade down to individual objectives. Otherwise, it will only enhance stress and worry over milestones that aren’t achievable! The world, economy, and social climate has shifted dramatically in the last year, and employee’s goals should also change to reflect what is beyond their control. This change has to start from the top. C-level and middle management pass on the adaptations to their staff, and so forth so that all employees can be clear on their new goals and targets for success. 

Be Real & Transparent

With empathy being a major concern for employees, they may be under the assumption that their employer and the company’s leaders are not discussing human emotion or the full reality. A lack of transparency about company decisions and corporate wellbeing can leave staff feeling unnecessarily uneasy. If leaders fail to acknowledge the changes going on around them, whether they are good or bad, the perception of empathy goes down along with employee trust.

Reduce Workplace Anxiety

Because some roles cannot be carries out remotely from home, a portion of employees simply must go into the office or place of work. If your employees are stressed about returning to work, here are a few things you can do: 

Go above and beyond with your safety protocols.

Let them know that their health is a primary concern.

Let them choose when they return to the office and where they want to work.

Ask them what you can do to help and be willing to do more.

Be open to new ideas and ready to act on them.

Check-In – a Lot 

In the absence of physical interactions, many employees feel like their manager is out of touch with their work and development needs. This leads to employees feeling like they lack the support needed to complete tasks and goals. This can lead to immense pressures and stress that equates to an overall breakdown of employee-manager relations. With a lack of facial queues and in-person meetings, managers may also find it difficult to assess if an employee is happy and healthy. This can make it even more challenging to ensure that employees get the right level of support. Managers should get the time and tools needed for frequent individual interactions with their team – as a group and one-on-one. Whether safely in person or via virtual meeting, this time is essential for ensuring employees are on track and keeps managers attuned to their teams’ health. 

Open Up

Even in pre-COVID times, a common grievance from employees is the feeling that their overall contributions aren’t seen or valued by the one or few involved in their performance review. Now, more than ever, companies should implement processes and tools that allow employees to receive kudos and feedback from everyone they interact with – from clients, other managers, peers, and partners. Surveys and 360° assessments are popular tools that provide documented proof of performance from multiple angles, so employees feel valued and that their entire body of work is recognized. This is especially important during times of remote work, where employees may spend most of their time communicating and interacting with everyone other than their direct manager. 


At the very least, companies should regularly ask employees how they are doing and what they feel they need from their manager and the company to stay on track – and then act on it. Many companies have started weekly pulse surveys to track the health of their teams and to adjust leadership accordingly. During check-ins, managers should also ask employees how they feel they are doing, what they need, and how they would like to work together to keep things on track as much as possible while preserving their health and balance. 

In the end, it comes down to relationships and trust. Listening to your employees is the first step in ensuring you stay connected to your teams’ needs and concerns – and you must have this data before you can act on it. 

In conclusion, no one solution will solve all of today’s workplace issues or rework your performance management approach overnight. As a leader, it’s your role to make decisions based on your employee’s needs and concerns. Empathy allows you to keep your team on track in a way that is realistic and reflective of the challenges we are all facing. The more people-focused you can be, the better leader you are, and that’s what will help you and your organization thrive through these times. 

Engage Performance Year-Round, From Anywhere, With emPerform.

Companies in every industry trust emPerform to help align their teams, develop performance, and facilitate valuable discussions with employees. If you would like to discuss the special packages available during this time to help your company get set up quickly with modern and online performance management software, please contact us