Empathy is the ability to see something from another’s experience and perspective including how they feel. Why is this important as a leader? Empathy is deeply connected to building trust and in Lencioni’s model of the 5 Dysfunctions of a team, trust is the foundation for building highly effective teams and exceptional results.
Empathy requires boundaries or it becomes sympathy. It’s understanding how someone feels and the ability to communicate that understanding through our words, body language, actions and behaviours. It is not taking on someone else’s feelings for them or saving them from hard emotions. Again, it’s recognizing and understanding their emotions, what it’s like to feel what they feel, and helping them know that you understand.
Leading with empathy is treating someone with dignity and respect when letting them go for poor performance. Knowing that they may be devastated in losing their job but also disappointed in themselves for not addressing feedback that had been given to them or accepting the support that was offered. It’s recognizing that they may be angry with you and blame you for your part in the loss of their job. It is making tough decisions and communicating them in a direct manner with kindness and not sugar coating the message. Sugar coating or taking a long time to get to the core message just makes it confusing and actually makes it hit harder when they finally figure out what they are trying to say.
Many leaders I work with are afraid of exploring or conveying empathy because they’re afraid it will have a negative impact on business results. Empathy doesn’t require you to make different decisions. It does offer you new information and perspective to consider which in turn may shift your thinking and ultimately your decisions. I talk with a lot of leaders that don’t want to consider or acknowledge how people feel for fear that they’ll be expected to do what others want vs. what is needed for the situation. Again, this is sympathy, altering your decision to make the other person feel better. That’s not leadership. Leadership is knowing they’ll be disappointed and making the decision anyway because it’s the right one for the business, the people or the community and your values or the company values. Empathy can change how you communicate your decision and build buy-in or support when people know you truly considered and care about the impacts of the decision on their situation and how they feel.
So how do you tap into empathy? I’ve spent a number of years exploring empathy in leadership and here are the essential elements as I’ve learned them from Brené Brown, Kristin Neff and Theresa Wiseman:
- Pay attention – Notice more than the words in a conversation including tone of voice, body language and any other cues to how the other person may feel. Pay attention to how your decisions and actions may impact how others feel.
- Imagine – what might it be like to be the other person. What might their experience be from their perspective?
- Stay out of Judgement – Avoid judging the other person’s feelings as right or wrong. How they feel is just how they feel.
- Name it – try to understand what the other person may be feeling.
- Communicate – Share your understanding of the other person’s feelings with them and be open to them clarifying how they feel.
High performing team and business results go far beyond strategic direction, execution and accomplishing tasks. It requires us, as leaders, to tap into the hearts and minds of others starting with empathy first.