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Leadership Requires Empathy

4 min read

Real empathy is the gateway to understanding what makes others tick and understanding what makes people tick is one of the most strategic tools a leader must master.

Recently I’ve been working with a newly promoted executive at an insurance firm. His first ever 360 results indicated that his team, and many of his colleagues, experienced him as being arrogant. One team member said:

He’s like a bull in a china shop. We all hold our breath when he walks in the room because no one knows what he’s going to break before he leaves.”

This same executive is also known for being honest and getting things done. As we reviewed his results he told me:

“I don’t get it. I’ve always figured if people knew where I stood, we wouldn’t have any problems or confusion.”

This, in a nutshell, is the tension between being authentic and developing potential.

My coachee is direct, a fast thinker, and a straight talker. What he is painfully discovering is that these same skills — skills that worked when he was an individual contributor — don’t work to motivate others to work hard.

Leadership requires he use a different skill-set. Leadership requires empathy.

Empathy: the ability to understand the feeling of other person

Many new leaders are suspect of empathy. They think it means being soft. Or letting staff get away with poor quality work in order not to hurt anyone’s feelings. But real empathy is the gateway to understanding what makes others tick and understanding what makes people tick is one of the most strategic tools a leader must master.

When a leader imagines what others are thinking or feeling it give them an advantage. The information gleaned from conceiving of the world through the eyes of another provides insight into how to communicate with them.

Imagine having to tell someone that the quality of his or her work is below par. This is both a difficult message to convey and to hear. The tool of empathy provides a tactical way of thinking about the problem and preparing for the conversation. Questions one might consider through the lens of empathy are:

  • Why would someone be delivering work that is below par? Are they feeling anxious? Are they too busy to proof their work before they pass it on? Might they need to learn to delegate? Or perhaps I need to reassess the resourcing of this project?
  • Are they embarrassed? Maybe they have a knowledge gap and are ashamed to ask for help. Should I provide training?
  • Are they unhappy about an aspect of the project for some reason? Maybe others are unhappy too.

The answers to these questions provide a framework for approaching the person and getting to the root cause of the issue.

Why Empathy?

Another reason for a business leader to master empathy as a competency is the rapid pace of globalization. More and more supervisors are finding that they have to manage remote teams or that they have customers in places they’ve never visited. On top of this, they must retain top talent and are often being asked to communicate directly with C-Suite executives.

Being able to understand—and share—the feelings of others both improves employee engagement and increases the speed of execution. More empathy equals fewer misunderstandings.

The Empathy Muscle

The good news is that empathy is a skill set that can be developed. For those of you wondering how to strengthen your own empathy muscle, here are a few simple techniques:

  • Use people’s name when talking to them, especially if they are several ranks below you in the company hierarchy. Letting people know you remember who they are makes them feel important. Also, try to remember the names of their spouse or children.
  • Turn away from your computer and look people in the eye when they enter your office. Giving your full attention to others increases their experience of feeling connected with you.
  • Don’t interrupt others or rush to give advice. Fully listen to both words of their message AND the emotional undertone. When you do respond include both parts of the message. eg: I can hear you are frustrated by x and that you have some ideas to fix it.
  • Ask for help when you need it. You can double the impact of this one by asking someone who reports to you for assistance rather than a colleague. Just because you are the boss doesn’t mean you know how to do everything. Modeling accepting help demonstrates teamwork at its best.

Empathy at Its Best: Ask for and Accept help

Accepting help comes in many forms and is perhaps the greatest form of empathy a business leader can exhibit. Accepting help requires showing vulnerability. Accepting help means admitting that you have a gap. Accepting help teaches others that it’s not only okay but also necessary to learn to recover from failure.

My coachee has found the practice of accepting help, in his case in the form of coaching, meaningful. He recently said that the technique of ‘thinking into the mind of another’ has been extremely impactful.

Before our work together I probably would have told someone who was doing low-quality work that I was unhappy with their performance and that if they didn’t improve, I would be forced to remove them from the project, or even fire them. Now I can ask better questions and offer support. It’s making it easier to get them to do what I want them to do. Everybody’s happier.”

And maybe that’s the best reason there is to practice empathy at work. Everybody’s happier.


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