Leading with Empathy
Everyone communicates, yet few truly connect.
Ask anyone to talk about a memorable leader that they have worked with and it is unlikely they will speak about the step-by-step protocol that they developed or their ability to create the annual budget. I’m not suggesting that technical skills are not important, far from it. Although very necessary, they are not sufficient alone when it comes to truly great leadership.
It is your interpersonal skills, often referred to as ‘soft skills,’ and your ability to relate to others that will determine how successful of a leader you become. You can be the most knowledgeable leader in the world, but if you are unable to relate or interact well with those around you, especially those in your team, you are unlikely to be totally effective in your role.
So, what is it that great leaders do to build strong relationships with those around them? They commit to developing and mastering the ‘soft skills’ of leadership. There are several and this commitment is an ongoing journey of learning and practice. You’ve heard the saying “People won’t always remember what you say; they do, however, remember how you made them feel.” Connecting is the ability to identify with people and relate to them in a way that increases your influence with them. A key leadership skill that advances your ability to ‘connect’ is empathy.
While empathy is a basic human quality, it often is lacking in our day-to-day lives and workplaces. According to Merriam-Webster, empathy is “the action of understanding, being aware of and being sensitive to one’s feelings, emotions, or pain vicariously as if it was experienced by themselves.” In short, empathy means imagining, or having the capacity to imagine, feelings that a person is feeling.
For leaders that have encountered some “life experiences” being empathic may come naturally and imagining isn’t needed. Here’s an example:
Imagine a member of your team goes through a tragic situation; for instance, she loses a close family member in an accident. We naturally feel sympathy for her and her family. We may send a text or write a card to express those feelings somehow. For the most part, though, we carry on and move forward with our lives.
But when we show empathy, we take more time…time to remember how we felt when we lost someone close to us (or how we would feel if we haven’t had this experience).
We think about how this affected our work and our relationships with others. Even further, we can or try to imagine specifically how this member of our team feels in this situation. We recognize that she (like every individual) will deal with the trauma in her own unique way.
Empathy has been described as “your pain in my heart.” The challenge is, as a leader, we are not always ready and for various reasons. If a leader can demonstrate true empathy to individual team members it will go a long way toward building that strong relationship and encourages an “all-in culture” for them to perform at their best. It likely will pay dividends inspiring the team to show empathy toward the leader, if and when it is needed.
So how can you, as a leader, practice being more empathetic?
- The next time a member of your team comes to you with a problem or complaint; resist saying to yourself, “Not again. What now?” and having that negative attitude. Rather, try to think back to when you had a similar problem and if not you, someone you respect that has and ask yourself: “Why does this person feel this way? What can I do to help make the situation better?”
- If it is a specific task or process that is causing problems to arise, try to work alongside the disgruntled team member, to better understand the person’s point of view. This does require you as the leader to slow down and it takes time. Showing empathy in this way will often motivate the one(s) you are trying to help. Not to mention the benefits this will bring to your working relationship.
Simply put, empathy begins by giving others the benefit of the doubt. When you display this pause, presence, and compassion; in the eyes of others, it makes us more human, approachable and easier to work with.
Leadership requires learning a number of skills and interpersonal (or ‘soft skills’) transform good leaders into great leaders. Empathy is one key leadership skill that will allow you to truly connect with others and likely, you will find that your ability to identify, relate, and increase your influence advances.