Today, more than ever, you need to lead with empathy. But that doesn’t mean you care any less about high standards or accountability.
Empathetic leadership means you know how to use one of the most important elements of emotional intelligence: You can see the world through the eyes of others. You are not so focused on your own agenda and goals that you neglect to anticipate, appreciate and respond constructively to the perspectives and feelings of people around you.
Your team’s feelings have taken a beating over the past two years. They have dealt with uncertainty, anxiety, loss and grief. Some staffers who had been working from home are torn about the return to the office. They’re still challenged by the ups and downs of their children’s education or childcare, along with the unpredictability of COVID variants. That anxiety doesn’t disappear when they enter your building.
People on the front lines of healthcare and public health have seen unspeakable tragedy and, sadly, even hostility. According to a recent USA Today/Ipsos poll, they still love what their jobs stand for, but their burnout and anger level is high. One in four is thinking of opting out.
THE HALLMARKS OF EMPATHETIC LEADERSHIP
You, however, might be the reason your employees decide to stay. Why? Because you lead with empathy when you:
- Check in with them to see how they are doing
- Notice when they are having a rough time and ask how you can help
- See them as humans, not just part of your organization’s head count — demonstrating you care about them, not just their work performance
- Enable them to feel safe sharing their concerns
- Listen deeply so they feel truly heard
- Expedite solutions so they know their concerns matter
- Remove obstacles to their success and job satisfaction
- Help them celebrate their successes and joys
- Let them know you believe in them
WHAT IF EMPATHY DOESN’T COME EASILY?
Not everyone is hard-wired for empathy. Perhaps you’ve always chalked up your success to your strength and stoicism, and this empathy stuff seems squishy to you. You’ve done pretty well until now without having conversations about how people feel.
But pretty well isn’t enough anymore. Bosses who’ve been all business need to understand the business case for empathy. A study by Catalyst found that empathetic leaders drive increased productivity, innovation and retention. Those without empathy are at greater risk of losing good employees as the Great Resignation rolls on.
HOW TO BE MORE EMPATHETIC
There are things we all can do to upgrade our capacity for empathy.
Change your perspective. Think of empathy not as social work or handholding, but as perspective-taking. That means you commit to finding out more about where others are coming from. You put your own point of view on pause and invest time in understanding other peoples’ stories — including the personal ones. You don’t become a psychologist, but you do become a better listener who happens to have both an open mind and an open heart.
Learn to read people. Body language. Tone. Empathetic leaders are attentive to peoples’ normal work and communication habits and learn to sense when they’re acting out of their usual patterns. The same goes for reading a room. (Even a Zoom room.) Are people hesitant to speak? Are they more — or less — energized than usual? Do people seem distracted?
Know how to gauge what’s going on. And respond in constructive ways. Calm your team if they’re anxious. Rally them if they’re disappointed by a small setback. Provide respite if they’re overwhelmed.
Continue to set ambitious goals. But make certain to include things like engagement, inclusion and employee satisfaction on that list. Empathetic leaders expect to be held accountable for all those goals. They also hire and promote people with emotional intelligence so that they’re building it into the culture. (And please don’t say you’re hiring for soft skills. That’s an outdated term that undervalues what are actually power tools.)
THE POTENTIAL DOWNSIDE OF BEING EMPATHETIC
While empathy makes you a better leader, it can also affect you in both positive and negative ways. You’ll be more attuned to the happiness of others, but you’ll also sense their pain more acutely.
Recent research, reported in the Harvard Business Review, says that empathetic managers are better than non-empathetic managers at delivering negative feedback. They’re more tactful and less apt to cause additional harm through their bluntness. But they also can be so bummed afterwards that it has a short-term negative effect on their own performance. They can leave such interactions feeling down and distracted. It can be hard to jump right back into other work when you’re still processing someone else’s sadness, anger or disappointment.
That’s why empathetic leaders need a support system to keep their resilience high. During those moments when you’re carrying too many emotions of others on your shoulders, talk with another manager for perspective. They’ll remind you of all the good you do, including during those moments when you must hold people accountable. After all, if you aren’t doing that, it hurts the rest of the team, who often must work harder or work around the person who needs to change.
At such times, it’s good to remember what pop culture’s preeminent empathetic leader Ted Lasso likes to say: “Doin’ the right thing is never the wrong thing.”