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In trying to help solve a problem that was causing some conflict among my teammates many years ago, I approached my manager with a suggestion. He immediately became irate and told me in response to my suggestion, “I would like to stay home in my pajamas all day and have my paycheck mailed to me, but that’s not how life works.”
Many years later, I think about that manager and hope his dream of staying home and working in his pajamas came true. But what I think about most when I remember that conversation was the lack of empathy, both toward me in the moment and toward the team that needed him to be a kind and understanding leader. I stood to gain nothing from my suggestion. In fact, project work that would have been easy for me would have gone to someone else, but the overall change would have helped the team exponentially. Unfortunately, he either couldn’t or wouldn’t see that. His lack of openness, kindness and empathy that day meant that I never viewed him as my leader in any way from that day forward.
If you want your team to be open with you, you need to cultivate empathy so you can truly see them and meet their needs as a leader. If you are in a manager role for any other reason than to help people, maybe it’s time to re-think your priorities. Being a leader requires things from you — sometimes hard things — and one of them is to be empathetic and compassionate to the people in your care.
What does an empathetic leader look like?
Recently, Microsoft CEO Satya Nadella pointed out the power of empathy in an interview with Harvard Business Review. He connected empathy with not just taking care of people, but also to design thinking, innovation, customer care, and ultimately, the bottom line.
We have been taught since grade school that empathy means stepping into someone else’s shoes and seeing the world from their perspective, but truly powerful forms of empathy neither start nor stop there. They reach all areas of our life and work. They help us feel seen and safe, connected to others and empowered to manage conflict kindly and inclusively.
A truly empathetic leader is proactive
Good leaders don’t just solve problems as they arise, but actively seek out ways to smooth the path for their people. And smoothing the way and removing obstacles requires empathy. It requires the ability to understand the wiring, needs and pace of people, and respond accordingly.
This kind of proactivity may require you to do your homework on your people to understand their strengths and challenges. It may also require that you occasionally push back on the leaders above you and tell them what won’t fly with your team. As difficult as those things may be, it’s the kind of investment in your people that will always pay you back richly.
A truly empathetic leader displays high cognitive empathy
Cognitive empathy is just what it sounds like — empathy based on cognitively understanding someone’s perspective. It doesn’t require emotion from us, but it does require understanding and a willingness to engage with that understanding. Affective empathy is empathy that is based on emotion. When someone cries with you or feels your anger within themselves, this is affective empathy at work.
In general, people can have high or low levels of both kinds of empathy, and there are no wrong ways to feel empathy. However, it’s believed that the best leaders are those who have high cognitive and low affective because this allows them to engage empathetically with employees and their feelings and frustrations without being pulled into the emotional fray.
A truly empathetic leader is inclusive
More than just seeing someone else’s perspective, empathy means slowing down and seeing others’ needs, speeds and creeds, and then helping them find the environments that work best for them. An empathetic leader is a leader who understands that not all of our brains are wired the same. Taking the time to see people as individuals with unique wiring, needs and motivations creates the safety and inclusivity that are vital to a high-functioning team.
A truly empathetic leader makes you feel safe
The best leaders create safety, cultivate empathy and honor the diversity of their people. They make sure that everyone feels safe, seen and valued for what they bring to the team. Without psychological safety, teams falter and eventually fail because they don’t feel safe enough to bring their authentic selves to work.
If you want the best work from your people and you want to encourage innovation, design thinking and all the good things that come from psychologically safe environments, take your empathy muscles out for a workout. Building empathy as a leadership skill is the single greatest investment you can do for yourself, your people and your organization at a time in our world when kindness is needed more than ever.
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