Can Empathy Make You A Better Leader?

When I mention the topic of empathy and leadership to team members or leaders, the reaction is polarized.

Team members respond with comments like, “we need more of that around here” or “our leaders could use that”. They are often eager to share a story about their own experience with a leader who lacked empathy, and how it created a distance in their working relationship.

Sometimes, they share, their experience translated to a dip in their morale…and in even worse cases, led to an acceleration of their disengagement.

On the flip side, when I mention empathy to leaders, their response is more mixed, ranging from comments like “I’m fairly empathetic, I build rapport and have genuine concern for members of my team” to “I know about it, but I’ve never had anyone actually tell me how to operationalize it”, to some non-verbal expressions clearly indicating their distaste for the notion.

Why the disconnect?

  • Some leaders have not been equipped with the tools to help them lead with empathy.
  • Some leaders believe that empathy is in conflict with effective business leadership.
  • Some leaders wrestle with how to invest time to explore empathetic leadership.

Yet, thought leaders indicate that there is a hunger for empathy in the workplace:

  • Brene Brown describes our culture as being in an “empathy deficit”. This extends well into the workplace.  At the same time, it can be challenging for a leader to consider how to respond in an empathetic manner.
  • Simon Sinek states that “empathy is the most important instrument in a leader’s toolbox”. Empathy can be used as a powerful tool in the workplace.

I continually hear stories from team members like the one below that reinforces the hunger for empathy and leadership:

Madeline was responsible for the budgeting and financial analysis for the IT department of a large technology company. While Madeline physically resided with her client, the IT leadership team, her direct leader, Mike, resided within the finance organization and mostly left Madeline alone. This suited Madeline fine as she believed she had a strong working relationship with Mike, even when he periodically made urgent requests of her.  She always found a way to attend to them, even at the expense of her own time.

One day, she found herself needing to make difficult budgetary decisions for her client that required the support of the finance leadership team. She approached Mike on multiple occasions, offering suggestions to resolve.  While Mike received her request, he neither actively supported her recommendations or offered an alternative for consideration, and simply remained elusive. Madeline, frustrated and feeling pressure from her client awaiting a response, finally set up a meeting with Mike, emphasizing the impact of the delay without his support.  Seemingly not recognizing how this was impacting Madeline’s ability to move forward nor her relationship with her client, Mike promised to get to it by the end of the week, citing multiple hot priorities he was attending to. With a brief, “Is that all?” he ended the meeting.

Madeline, left to her own devices and feeling like Mike had not empathized or understood a fraction of her perspective, felt a surprising shift in how she felt about their relationship.  She quietly promised herself to think twice before jumping through hoops for Mike’s last minute requests in the future.

How might Madeline be feeling if Mike had empathized with her situation?

Throughout my career I’ve worked in numerous industries and across geographies, in small companies and large, for profit and non-profit, with professionals and management and alongside early-in-career individual contributors as well as vice presidents.  Across all of these types of organizations and populations, I’ve observed that one singular thread has remained constant.  A team member’s hunger for empathy and the impact an empathetic leader can have.

I invite you to return to my blog to examine a range of topics from the types of empathetic leadership to ways to seamlessly incorporate empathy into daily leadership to problem solving using empathetic leadership.  Along the way I’ll share tips, tools and techniques to try out.

Join me in exploring Empathetic Leadership.

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