Here’s Why Leading with Empathy Matters – And How You Can Do It Better

By Carrie Fox

Several years ago, a young employee was having a hard time concentrating at work, and while it was clear she was struggling to connect with her peers and meet certain deadlines, she was also noticeably uncomfortable sharing details of her struggle.

Rather than scold her for missing deadlines (which was my first inclination), I asked her to join me for a walk. We found a little table at an outdoor café and talked, about seemingly inconsequential matters first, before she shared that her grandmother was ill, and that she was having a difficult time thinking about anything other than how she was going to get back home to visit with her. She was a relatively new employee, and hadn’t yet worked up the vacation time to step away.

As she talked, I no longer saw her as a new employee causing issues among the team, but a young person, who was feeling overwhelmed by the illness of someone very special to her. I suggested she take the rest of the week off, to be with her family, with the knowledge that that we would manage her assignments for the remainder of the week.

Looking back, it was such a small gesture, but it deeply and positively changed our relationship, and her future performance. It was also my light bulb moment to the power of listening and learning from my employees, and the importance of leading with empathy in the workplace.  As  Theodore Roosevelt said, “Nobody cares how much you know until they know how much you care.”

Empathy is defined many ways, but I understand it as the ability to see the world through another’s eyes. The importance of empathy has long been understood among educators, parents, and physicians, but only recently has it emerged among the shortlist of required skills for successful CEOs: an essential tool to the success of business, with direct correlation to the growth, productivity, and earnings per employee.

Why Empathy Matters

When you allow yourself to see situations from another’s perspective, you create an environment for employees and peers to feel safe with failures, or to ask for support when challenges arise. When our leaders are empathetic—and by extension, kind— we become more loyal to them, and therefore work harder to do right by them. And, in this especially divisive time, how can we be anything but kind?

Yet, according to the recent Workplace Empathy Monitor, while sixty percent of employers believe their organizations are empathetic, just 24 percent of employees agree. Many times, leaders think they are being empathetic. They think they are creating space for an understanding environment. But they don’t take the time to really listen and learn from their employees.

How Empathic Are You? Take the Quiz!

The good news is there are some very simple strategies to build empathetic leadership into your day-to-day activities. (Note: the following list is adapted from the teachings of Roman Krznaric and the Greater Good Science Center at UC Berkley.)

  1. Speak from Experience vs. Giving Advice. Frederique Irwin, the brilliant mind behind Her Corner, asks members in her Accelerator programs to abide by the Gestalt Language Protocol, in which individuals speak from experience rather than give advice. For instance, saying, “Here’s what worked for me…” is far more effective and empathic than saying “Here’s what you should do…” or “Here’s what I would do…”
  2. Listen vs. Analyze. The person with whom you’re speaking likely isn’t expecting (or wanting) you to have the answer, nor do they want to be immediately judged or evaluated on the information they are sharing. Rather than jumping to a statement like “I think you’re taking this the wrong way…” or “You’re taking this too seriously…,” just listen, and avoid the urge to have “the right answer.”
  3. Focus on Understanding vs. Defending. If an employee or peer has difficult information to share with you, give them the time and space to share, without immediately jumping to your own defense. It is far more effective to let someone explain what is bothering them, and then to calmly enter into conversation, without rushing to give your side of the story—even if you do believe you are in the right.
  4. Give the Person Speaking Your Full Attention. The person in front of you is your sole focus and multitasking, while a great skill, is not appropriate when working empathically. Instead, practice active listening. Tune into what your conversation partner is saying without interruption. Pay careful attention to their body language and facial expressions and periodically repeating back to them what you think they’re trying to say, to make sure you understand them accurately. The real test of active listening: next time you’re in conversation, focus on the color of your conversation partner’s eyes. Tune in to them fully, and you’ll likely find that you will hear them better than you have in the past.
  5. Look for Commonalities. Approach your day knowing that you have at least one thing in common with every single person with whom you interact—on the train, in the coffee shop, and certainly at work. When interacting with people who, at first glance, seem to be different from you, look for sources of commonality and shared experience. Maybe you’re both fans of the same sports team or you both know what it’s like to lose a loved one. Seeing your Shared Identity can help you overcome fear and distrust and promote empathy and cooperation.
  6. Share in Other People’s Joy. Empathy is not just about commiserating; it can also be experienced in response to positive emotions such as happiness and pride. If you hear someone else sharing good news or celebrating a special moment at work, step away from your computer, and express your enthusiasm for their good news. Moments like this take mere seconds, but they are immensely important for the well-being of a relationship.

 

The short summary to all of this is: Life is hard, and there will always be more to people’s stories than they let on. Start every day from a place of compassion, and an understanding that it’s OK to not know all the answers. And, in taking the time to understand others, they’ll likely take time to understand you better, too.

 

For more empathy tips, check out the best research-based empathy practices, and read Roman Krznaric’s “Six Habits of Highly Empathic People.”