What IS Empathy?
Put simply, empathy is understanding how someone else is feeling by putting yourself in their shoes, or more commonly by imagining being in their shoes. Not their actual shoes, we’re dealing in metaphors here. Relax, you don’t need to put Martin’s brogues on.
Stand-up comic Ryan Niemiller’s routine about how ‘people su-ck at empathy’ is a funny take on how we humans can be clumsy in our attempts at connection sometimes. The scenarios he describes are of people panicking that they should acknowledge his disability by desperately trying to relate. Empathy requires authenticity. If you don’t understand, it’s OK to say so and ask how it feels for that person.
Why is empathy important in Leadership?
As Brene Brown says ‘empathy fuels connection’. Using leadership skills to lead an organisation with empathic behaviours improves communication and staff loyalty. When challenges arise, which they will, stagnation and resentment are far less likely and it is more likely staff will rise to the challenge and move forward, because they feel valued and connected.
I once got sacked for having an asthma attack in my early food retail career (that’s corporate speak for I worked in an ice cream parlour). It was my first shift and I was closing the shop with my boss at the end of a very long day. The asthma came on suddenly and before I knew what was happening my floor sweeping (and breathing) became slow and laboured. My frazzled employer immediately assumed I was lazy and sent me home, telling me not to come back, despair in her voice at hiring yet another layabout. I was wounded. Sacked! Moi? But I’d always been a model employee, and what about the free ice cream?
Tiredness, stress, and bias influenced by previous experience can dampen our ability to empathise and connect with employees.
So how can you develop greater Empathy?
As a leader, you set the example for others to follow. If you have public temper tantrums staff will think it’s OK to do so too, or at the very least not want to approach you for fear of an eruption. If something in the company is concerning you, TALK to people about it, rather than sending a strongly worded email. Explain why it is making you feel that way. Healthy behaviours such as these can then cascade through the organisation.
Share mistakes as well as successes
Look at what could be done better next time rather than the mistake being held up as examples of ‘how not to’. As our local primary school says ‘mistakes are our friends’. I know, get me a bucket. However, in organisations where mistakes are seen as opportunities for learning, blame culture and hiding ‘shameful’ errors can be avoided.
Literally, put yourself in the other person’s situations by spending time with them doing their jobs so you know exactly what it feels like and understand the particular challenges of that role.
Make time to find out how people are getting on inside and outside of work, and really pay attention – so that’s devices down and mental to-do lists on hold.
Are you scared of empathy?
That’s understandable. To quote Brene again ‘it’s a vulnerable choice’. You may feel it’s a risk as a leader, perhaps worried you could lose respect and authority. Now think of a leader you have really connected with – it could be a headteacher from when you were younger, a sports coach or a previous employer. What were the behaviours of this person that you had great respect for and who you felt really understood you? See. Empathy is a strength, not a weakness.