Empathy, or the ability to embrace a true understanding of another’s feelings or sentiments, is often cited as a key trait for employees today. However, if that soft skill is to become a workplace expectation, leadership must embrace and exhibit the behavior first. That’s challenging, since a study of more than 600 employees conducted by consulting company Lee Hecht Harrison concluded that 58% of corporate managers fail to show empathy toward employees. A failure to consider the other’s feelings or circumstances is dismissive at best and divisive at worst. Here are some easy suggestions to improve morale and to develop your empathetic leadership muscle, toward the goal of improving the workplace experience for everyone:
How well do you know your direct reports? You probably have a pretty good handle of how each team member performs their job requirements, but what do you know about them personally? Consider starting a spreadsheet with the names of your employees listed in column one. Add columns for the names of their partners, the names and ages of their children, where they were born, where they were educated, and their hobbies, favorite sports teams or travel places. Find out the answers during casual conversations or during your one-on-one meetings. The more questions and answers you add, the more interest you will legitimately take in their lives – and the greater an empathy cushion you will create.
Visit employee workspaces. If you judge employee worth largely through bottom-line reports and how many times they chime in with brilliant ideas at a staff meeting, getting beyond the barrier of the conference room table will give you a third perspective: how the person operates in their workspace. What interests do people display in their assigned spaces? Are they able, during a less-formal, more spontaneous interaction, to discuss their work or project with a more genuine passion that they might show in a group meeting, or share new ideas?
Are you faithful about conducting weekly one-on-one meetings? When things are going well, we managers often don’t see the point of weekly meetings. Why waste time? When things go bad, we bring the person into our office to put them on a performance plan. Meanwhile, well, everyone knows what they should be doing, right? We’re not micro-managers, after all. Today, most corporate communication is handled by email or group meetings. In an individual setting, you have an opportunity to pay attention, physically and mentally, to one person’s thoughts and feelings, which is a much richer interaction. To build empathetic skills, listen carefully and respond encouragingly to the central message. Ask them, “How could I better assist you, as your manager, in doing your job?” If the employee has a suggestion, consider their remarks from the employee’s point of view.
Can you make a legitimate commitment to an empathetic workplace? Your attitude sets the tone. Are you rooted in the belief that it’s the employee’s job to commit to the workplace? Do you harbor a “love it or leave it” attitude? Are you most concerned with your agenda (thanks to your superior big-picture knowledge)? Are you mired down by the need to constantly express why your directives or point of view is right? If so, you share a corporate viewpoint with 58% of other managers. But, co-incidentally, another study found that 58% of all managers are incompetent and lack the basic skills to lead others.
Funny how those two studies align. If you recognize the importance of building relationships and accepting others – of growing the firm from the inside by developing staff as well as product, it’s an achievable goal with an open mind and willing heart, one employee at a time.