Empathy Makes You a Better Leader

Nov 30, 2016

The work’s gotta get done…right?

As a leader, your two inputs for getting the work done is machines and people.  When dealing with machines, we all know that regular maintenance and updating is required so they don’t break down and prevent progress.  Easy, right?

What about your people?

Early psychologists liked to think of people as black boxes—you put information or training into people and they will provide a certain output. Unfortunately, this is where many of the ‘command and control’ practices currently in the workplace originated.

Now we know that people are actually very complex, with varying learning styles and work styles.  People are beset by emotions and stress and their kids, and the mortgage, and traffic and lots of uncontrollable variables. All of this impacts what each individual worker brings to their job every day.

How do you, as the leader, understand what each person needs so he or she can optimally focus on their work, especially given all the other uncontrolled variables in their lives?  And, productivity aside, how do we treat each other in humane and caring ways at work?

Let’s talk about empathy.  It sounds soft and smushy, but it is one of the most critical leadership skills. Empathy is the ability to read and understand other people’s emotions, needs, and thoughts.  Empathy allows us to better understand and connect with those around us in meaningful and important ways.

When you have empathy you better understand others and in turn, they feel understood.  They feel heard and, when you respond empathically to them, they feel cared about and appreciated.

Research is very clear that employees who feel cared about and appreciated are much more engaged at work and more committed to their jobs, which in turn, leads to higher productivity. And a healthier bottom line.

True empathy is the ability to step outside your own emotions to view the situation from the other person’s perspective.  This means you, as the leader, need to be self-aware enough to set aside your thoughts and feelings for a moment and truly immerse yourself in someone else’s experience and perspective. That is how understanding is built.

How do you go about developing or strengthening your empathy ‘muscle’ so you can be a better leader?

  1. Learn to listen at different levels. People with empathy don’t just listen to words. They also observe body language, tone of voice, facial expressions. They incorporate behaviors they have been observing over a period of time.

  2. Identify how you are feeling. Each situation brings up feelings for you, as the leader. Put words to how you are feeling so that you understand your own response.

  3. Once you identify how you are feeling, set that aside and truly listen to the other person, putting words to how you think they are feeling. Clarify that with them. Are you correct in how you have described how they are feeling?

  4. Take a deep breath and ask what they need.

  5. Avoid distractions and focus on the person as you communicate. This is not easy, given all the demands upon our time. Work on setting your internal stresses aside.

  6. Stop multi-tasking. You are not able to focus fully on another when you are trying to do two or more things at once.

Once you are able to understand how the situation feels to the other person, together you can develop a plan of action that is built on understanding of them as a human being, not just a machine or a black box.

Here is how you are feeling…here is what needs to be done…how can we work together to accomplish the goal while acknowledging feelings and uncontrollable situations? How do we work together to control what we can to make it easier on everyone?

When you begin problem-solving together everyone feels respected and supported, making work a more humane and caring place.