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How leaders can learn to be empathetic: An ideal in today’s workplace



Whether some leaders like it or not, their employees want them to be more empathetic. A recent survey of employees by Ernst & Young found empathetic leadership boosts morale, inspires positive change within the workplace, fosters mutual respect between employees and leaders, and increases productivity among employees.

Increased productivity is arguably the one thing leaders unanimously say they want.

Important to learn to be empathetic

But many leaders still push back on this concept rather than put their arms around their employees. They neglect empathy for various reasons, even though research has often pointed to empathy as a key driver of business success. But they can learn to be empathetic.

Surprisingly, I was decidedly anti-empathy as a leader for a long time. I spent years as a keynote speaker espousing reality-based leadership “rules of the workplace,” telling leaders to ditch the drama and take no excuses. One of our team’s famous lines on the speaking circuit was, “When should you fire a person? The moment you think of it.”

My struggles with empathy

My audience was full of human resources personnel. They would laugh and laud me afterward for saying what needed to be said. Yes, you read that right: People working in human resources ate up my take-no-prisoners-tell-the-truth-regardless leadership methods.

My hard edge as a leader developed when I was growing up, as a result of the soft heart I saw my mother show so many people whom I thought were undeserving of her empathy – many of them convicted felons. She was the source of why I wanted to get as far away from empathy as possible. She would feed anyone who would come by, and with food as the catalyst, she had many opportunities to hear people’s stories of betrayal, violence, poverty, heartbreak, illness, death, you name it. When they would get out of jail, she would listen to their stories of redemption (or not).

I thought she needed boundaries. I wanted her to tell people they were making bad choices, that after the third, fourth or fifth incident she wasn’t going to listen to them anymore. I just could not understand how anybody could listen to all those problems and excuses and keep smiling calmly. Witnessing my mother’s endless capacity to care –  a trait I thought was wasted on people who were making bad choices and taking advantage of her – I built a shield of armor around my own heart. I even built a lack of ability to listen.

A series of life-altering events placed me on my professional empathy journey, but building empathy does not require a major life situation. You can, through practice, build the skill at any point in your life. In my process, I have experienced what psychologists have known scientifically for centuries: Empathy is a strength, not a weakness. And it is critically important for us to strengthen our empathy muscle if we are to create the world that many of us aspire to live in and leave behind.

Helping without hand-holding

People who lack empathy share the belief that they can get a ton accomplished when they don’t concern themselves with “people issues.” It is common for them to think that lacking empathy just might provide the buoyancy to results rather than the barrier.

But sometimes we need to take a subjective view and humanize the people in front of us. We need to step into situations and ask, “What would I want to happen if it were me?” Or, “What does this person need most right now?”

Contrary to what many believe, leading with empathy is not about hand-holding or making excuses. Empathy is about understanding others and then strategically leveraging that understanding to make progress. Yes, I used empathy, strategic, and leverage in the same sentence. I bet you didn’t expect that. I use two simple examples here of practicing empathy to show how it leads to solutions.

  • Understanding why employees are late and making allowances. Let’s say you have a team member who is scheduled for a mandated meeting across town that ends at 10:15 a.m. That team member also is supposed to be in your meeting, which begins at 10:30 a.m. If it takes 20 minutes to drive across town, then they aren’t going to be on time for your meeting. If you don’t understand why they always arrive late (and stressed), you’re not going to solve the problem. In fact, a lack of understanding will make the problem worse.
  • Listening to the employees’ side when the production level on your assembly line has dropped. How will you know that it’s because the new box you introduced last week takes 20 seconds longer than the old box to assemble if you don’t talk to and understand how the people on the line do their job? Empathizing with the workers in this scenario and asking for their thoughts can lead to improved production. Without that understanding, you’ll end up with a supervisor uselessly yelling at the line workers to work faster, and that’s not going to end well for anyone.

3 empathetic strategies

As business leaders face challenges this year, such as market uncertainty, recession fears, and workplace stability, empathy will be an essential leadership skill. Here are three strategies to implement empathetic leadership:

Communicate your vision

In this way you provide everyone in the organization with a roadmap on how they are going to be part of something grand and exciting. Talk honestly with your leadership team about the concept of empathy and how you see it fitting into the company culture. Invite them to provide honest feedback.

Most significant vision and mission statements represent a rallying cry for a departure from business as usual. They require people to think and act differently. For that reason, underneath the excitement will be apprehension, anxiety, and fear of the unknown. Share with your leadership team that this is an opportunity for you all to learn together and that mistakes will be made.

Listen emphatically

Leading with empathy is about listening for understanding and strategically acting on that understanding. But many people struggle to listen. We are often distracted, thinking about how we will respond to what is being said. We also prioritize our level of listening depending on who the speaker is.

Spend a day paying attention to who you listen to and how you listen to them. Make a list of the people you listened to. Then categorize how you listened to each of those individuals. Mark I for intently, D for disinterest, and T for those you tuned out. Encourage your leadership team to participate in this exercise. Have the patience to hear people out.

Coach and develop

What if you are so focused on results that you have no time for long-term development of people’s empathy muscles? Make an intentional plan. When empathetic leaders possess strategic agility, they can accurately anticipate future consequences and trends related to people development. They understand that failing to provide targeted and differentiated professional development has consequences.

Developed over time

Empathy isn’t developed quickly. The average person can develop empathy within three to five years. This is not a microwave-like endeavor. However, a leader’s job is to convince people on the way up to get out of their comfort zone and accept opportunities to build their empathy muscle.

Help those you lead expand their perspectives. Give people who have the potential for increased responsibilities some assignments that take them outside their typical functions. Volunteer them for cross-boundary task forces, or have them attend meetings that include people from other areas.

I understand why well-meaning, logical, reasonable, results-focused leaders find it hard to comprehend why people simply cannot do their jobs. After all, they’ve committed themselves to these roles, so why would they need coaxing, cajoling, or hand-holding?

It used to frustrate the heck out of me, too, until I recognized that commitment works both ways: employee to employer and employer to employee. If the employer is not committed to providing the employee the support, tools, and resources required to get their job done, they can’t expect an employee to keep their commitment to get their job done.

Conversely, for the employer to commit to providing the employee what’s needed to get the job done, they must understand what those needs are. Therefore, leading with empathy matters. Before we can lead with empathy, we must appreciate its value and learn to practice it in our daily lives. And we need everyone to get on board with this. In today’s world there is a significant shortage of empathy at a time when we need a surplus of it.

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