Let’s get real. Empathy has not always been a cornerstone of managerial education and training. But smart companies are shifting their perspective to help managers learn about and lead with empathy.
Empathy Is ...
Synonyms for empathy: understanding, generosity, compassion. It does not mean “doormat” or “gutless leader.” Here’s what the experts say.
“Empathy is making a consistent effort to understand how others feel—putting oneself in someone else’s shoes,” says Alain Dehaze, chief executive officer of Adecco Group.
“It’s caring more about the person than the agenda and listening with an open heart,” says Angelic Gibson, chief information officer with AvidXchange.
What results, adds Dehaze, is that “when employees feel heard, understood, and cared for, they work harder, take more risks, and help others succeed. This, in turn, improves talent retention.”
In the 2021 Digital Etiquette Study by Adaptavist, empathy was the number one issue employees said their managers could improve upon, with 25 percent of respondents reporting they would like to see more empathy from leadership.
Become Your Organization’s Ted Lasso
Karim Juhri writes in The Enterprisers Project that shifting from a manage-down approach to a coach-driven culture can help build confidence and open space for employees to adapt and evolve. The idea is to get to know your employees well—understand their strengths and skills and guide them so they can grow and thrive. Help your employees to foster a growth mindset rather than teaching them rules and focusing on deadlines and end goals, Juhri suggests. Show them the value in making mistakes. That’s what Ted Lasso would do.
Being your organization’s Ted Lasso means becoming its chief empathy officer. Simo Leisti, group CEO at Futurice, writes, “Empathy is not just a tactic. Genuine concern for people is the ultimate business strategy for growth.”
Empathy, Leisti contends, involves leadership (not employees) taking these steps:
- Prioritize and facilitate strategic connections for a hybrid workforce.
- Ensure employees working in and out of the office feel valued.
- Create opportunities for employees to see how and why their work matters.
- Be transparent, listen, and keep your door open.
If your company doesn’t provide this training yet, ask for it.
If you need evidence that empathy-based training is worth the time and money, researcher Reena Raita writes in the International Journal of Global Business and Competitiveness that leaders’ empathy skills increase the well-being (and, ultimately, the productivity) of their employees, especially during times of crisis and change. Her research confirms:
- Compassion and empathy affect employee motivation and performance.
- Open, honest, and timely communication promotes trust and bonding.
- Supporting employees’ autonomy, competency, and self-efficacy impacts well-being.
Use Your Tools to Create Space
Keeping your focus on the people who work for you means finding time for your tasks and then making space to lead. How? By taking advantage of a key future trend that will shape the workplace, according to the Harvard Business Review: Many “managerial tasks will be automated, creating space for managers to build more human relationships with their employees.”
That doesn’t mean WALL-E will replace you. Read on.
Take meetings, for example. You have cool tools like web-based and virtual calendars that sync to coordinate and schedule your meetings. Not very long ago, these tasks took time, phone calls, emails, and energy to do manually. With more automated coordinating and scheduling, you can focus your time and energy on your people.
Empathy Means Thinking About Meetings …
Like an Employee
Managers schedule meetings. Employees attend them. Managers aren’t managing unless they’re scheduling at least five meetings a day. So says the Big Managerial Book of Outdated Assumptions and Expectations.
If your meeting really should have been an email, you’ll have wasted your team’s time and cost your company money. You also may have become that manager or boss who is the subject of certain memes. Just sayin’.
“People who feel physical is better will pull people together and host the meeting, but they’ll make people think, ‘Why did you pull me in for this? There’s no reason this couldn’t have been virtual,’” Keith Ferrazzi, founder and CEO of strategic consulting firm Ferrazzi Greenlight, says in an interview with Chief Executive.
Business etiquette expert Jacqueline Whitmore shares that leaders should ask these questions to decide whether to meet in person:
- How important is this issue?
- Can the work be done effectively in a virtual meeting?
- Will it cost the company more money to meet in person?
Whitmore emphasizes the importance of clarifying the meeting agenda, especially if scheduled in person, as well as assessing the impact a physical gathering will have on the desired outcome.
Ferrazzi suggests using in-person meetings for activities like team bonding, conflict management, and dealing with a controversial issue.
Once you decide on the most effective meeting format for your employees, use these tips to be productive, efficient, and focused.
Check-Ins: Staying in Touch with Employees
So if you’re a manager trying to cut down on your meetings but ramp up on staying in touch with your team, consider check-ins. These conversations help you see past the deadlines to the person helping to meet them and are a great way to build your leading-with-empathy skills.
In the same Adaptavist etiquette study cited above, 23 percent of employees said they wish bosses would ask for their feedback on how work has changed.
You can do that in a 10-minute check-in, Whitmore points out. “You just want to know, are you meeting that person’s expectations? And if not, what can [you] do to improve, because no one’s perfect. We all have room for improvement. So, it’s just that open dialogue that you have, even in relationships, check-ins are critical. Are you feeling okay with this? Are things working out?”
Some managers shy away from check-ins, concerned that the conversation will slide into a full-on gripe session. You can manage that (pun intended) by outlining one or two key goals for the conversation—a sort of informal agenda for the check-in.
The Adaptavist study also revealed that 32 percent of employees feel their bosses need to have more realistic expectations. Check-ins that allow you and your employees to talk in real time about these expectations is a chief empathy officer tool you should consider using regularly. If you are managing a remote team, a quarterly touch-base meeting with each of your reports can help you build solid relationships with them, which then allows you to set realistic goals and expectations.
Stay in touch with your employees, so you know when to provide flexibility in the on-site, hybrid, or remote workplace when faced with life’s curveballs and celebrations—from doctors’ appointments to kids’ soccer games. Provide positive feedback and consider “stay interviews” to find out what motivates employees to show up every day and do their best work.
Empathy: It’s Contagious
Being a manager who leads with empathy takes work. But if you stick with it, you create an environment that’s good for your employees and for you. “Set an example,” Whitmore advises. “It does start at the top. If you’re a manager, you have to model the behavior you want your employees to emulate.”
As an empathy-driven manager, you help employees be kinder to themselves, which helps them be more compassionate toward both their coworkers and you.
There is no one way to build this kind of workplace—Whitmore stresses that each team needs to determine for itself what works best—but deciding that empathy will be your organization’s go-to strategy is the place you begin.