Treat Them with Tenderness


To navigate the COVID-19 crisis and global lockdown and to help our people through it, we have had to draw on new and deeper resources within us and practice leadership skills we were never taught. Now as we enter a new normal, we need new skills yet again. To identify the leadership capacities we need to focus on in the coming months, it is important not to underestimate the traumatizing effects quarantine has had on people.

On February 26, 2020, The Lancet published a report exploring the psychological impact of quarantine. They found that post-traumatic stress (PTS) scores are four times higher in parents and children who have been in quarantine than those who have not. The World Economic Forum published reports showing stress-related mental health disorders in 28 percent of parents who had been in quarantine as opposed to a norm of about 14 percent.

We must accept that many of the people around us are experiencing or have experienced trauma, and we all know how to treat them—with tenderness. Tenderness is a term that clinical psychologist Faith Bethelard uses to describe a need identified by Japanese psychiatrist Takeo Doi, a need that we don’t grow out of after infancy, but we do stop talking about.

Tenderness is hardly a word we use in business.

Yet tenderness is going to be important from not only a humanitarian perspective in the coming months, but also an economic one. Professor Dr. Elke Van Hoof from the Vrije University of Brussels predicts a secondary epidemic of burnout, stress, and absenteeism. The World Economic Forum published a report by Eurofound that shows that people at high risk of stress-related disorders are likely to be 35 percent less productive than those who are not. Renowned neurosurgeon Ian Weinberg explains the pathology: Fear—something we have all experienced over the last months—and the adrenaline it generates leads to excessive inflammation and raised cortisol levels, causing suppression of immunity and resulting in illness.

Tenderness is the new leadership capacity that we have to cultivate. Treating people with tenderness is not just about making them feel better and heal more quickly; it is also about keeping them productive. It still means that we should continue to hold them accountable for outcomes.

Tenderness is not something you do or say; it is a way of being when you are engaging with someone who is experiencing trauma. It is authentic and comes from deep within our hearts. Although changing times call for changing leadership capacities, tenderness is one that we need now and that we must keep and use for a long time to come.

Amidst our fears and our desire to get our businesses productive again, we could become so task-oriented as to lose sight of the fragile human hearts around us. Remember to be tender with your family. Be tender with your employees. Be tender with your teams. But most of all, appreciate that you too have been through trauma, and be tender with yourself.

To learn about how to Lead in the Moment as we enter a new normal, click here.