Empathy is a bit mushy for work, right?
An HR leader was telling me her organisation has many technical people and when the topic of empathy came up in a management meeting, she was faced with push-back.
The comments came that employees were engineers and analysts who preferred to stay focused on the important stuff - results. The view was that bringing empathy into conversations would only waste time.
For many, the thought of empathy in leadership can be daunting, because as managers we’re not psychologists, and getting personal with work colleagues contradicts decades of management books.
Focusing on Results
With a shift to remote working, management styles have needed to become more outcome or results focused. Micromanaging is simply not an option in a remote environment. Leaders attempting this approach will find team members become distracted and unproductive, with both parties falling into a relationship of distrust.
Successful leaders agree short-term objectives with team members, ensure clarity in what success looks like and check-in along the way to offer timely support.
A Pitfall of Results Based Leadership
Imagine for a moment that your organisation has suffered a decline in sales and a restructure is likely, or a family member is working through a health issue, or your children just love running laps around your new home office.
Any one of these circumstances would make it hard to bring a clear, creative and present mind to the outcomes you’re working towards.
Each of these situations can quickly take mental priority over any work objectives and the absence of empathy from leadership will drive up disengagement.
Empathy in Leadership
Inviting open and safe discussion on these types of topics represents opportunity to build more meaningful relationships and bring action to improve individual situations.
Brené Brown tells us…
Empathy is connecting with people so we know we’re not alone when we’re in a struggle.
But empathy can be hard to quantify. What does empathy look like in leadership? How does it show up? Especially if we’re not natural empaths?
The good news, empathy is a skill and like any skill it’s possible to get better at with practice.
A good place to start is to consider four key drivers of happiness as found by the World Happiness Report, financial security, personal health, trust and relationships. We know that if one or more of these drivers is taking a hit, then it’s going to be causing employees to struggle.
1. Financial security
This can be considered in context of business performance and the potential impacts on employees. Your primary leadership empathy tool here is communication.
As an example it only takes a couple of employees to interpret a negative business impact, such as a decline in sales as leading to job cuts and the rumour mill can quickly spread misinformation.
Empathy in leadership is recognising the different ways a decline in sales might be interpreted by employees. Frequently communicating factual information will avoid fake news and give confidence in the reality of the situation.
If there are real risks, communicating those risks, what is being done to mitigate them and where possible seeking employee input will help build trust and cohesion. A good example of how to communicate one of the most difficult situations (mass redundancies) can be found in the AirBnB CEO letter to all employees .
The guiding light here is to ensure employees feel informed about key information which may affect their financial security.
2. Personal health
This isn’t about assuming the role of doctor or over-stepping into nitty gritty details. It’s about being curious to understand if employees or their families are dealing with health concerns.
By asking, listening and empathising it can be possible to make the smallest adjustments that not only make a big impact - but also show that you care.
I saw a LinkedIn post where someone couldn’t wait to get back to office working because their eyes were feeling strained everyday looking at a small laptop screen at home. A conversation with an empathetic manager asking what they like least or most about WFH could quickly lead to a suggestion to visit the office and pickup a big monitor.
The safest forum for these conversations is 1-on-1 meetings where it only takes a moment to check-in on health concerns. Even if nothing is up, the underlying message is that you care enough to ask.
If concerns do come up, a guiding light for an empathetic discussion is to understand the impacts and focus on ways to reshape work commitments so the team member can more easily deal with the situation.
As an employee I want to feel a sense of trust that those in leadership positions are actively looking out for and taking action towards the greater good of the company. This is just like we crave trust in our governments that they’re taking care of the issues facing our country.
When we witness unfair outcomes, inaction or non-sensical decisions we rapidly lose trust in the ability of those in leadership. Even when we are not the victim of inequality but we see it happening to others, we still lose trust in our leadership.
Conversely, when we see leaders act on important issues to make things fair and consistent with our shared values, we feel at ease and trust our leadership, which liberates our mind to focus on the task at hand.
Fairness can be as simple as ensuring team members deliver on promised commitments, doing what you said you would do, or calling out misaligned behaviours.
How is empathy related to trust?
Leaders who act with empathy have an ability to identify issues that will negatively affect the team and take action to make them right in a fair way.
Fostering more meaningful connections with team members means taking the time to understand the whole person and to share more of ourselves.
By connecting beyond the work transaction, as a leader we are creating the space for empathy to naturally flow.
Everybody is dealing with something and having a shared awareness can not only be a relief for the team member but allows us to be more forgiving and supportive towards work impacts.
When we view and treat our team members as humans, our team members reciprocate with their full creativity and desire to deliver.
So which is better, results or empathy based leadership?
The truth is both are important. Perhaps the real question is, can you afford to lead without empathy?
We might have gotten away with it before COVID, in an environment of certainty and lower stress levels where the impact of a lack of empathy is masked by the achievement of good performance outcomes.
The current environment has the potential to strike at key drivers of happiness and utterly distract employees from the work at hand, leading to a significant drop in company performance.
Employees may also be feeling particularly vulnerable right now as they navigate their own challenges, but also being on full display as managers come into homes through video calls.
As leaders, we have an opportunity to take this in a positive direction by demonstrating an authentic, empathetic response and building levels of trust exceeding times of pre-pandemic.
By using our empathy skills in hard times, or in good, we can develop more cohesive and resilient teams that achieve great performance outcomes.
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