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Empathy – why it matters in leadership now

One of the people I admired most in the world is former First Lady – Michele Obama.  I think she is the personification of wisdom. An African American woman who has obtained an Ivy League education, built a successful career, brought up two beautiful daughters and married a man who has changed the History of America forever. I love the fact that she has such an optimistic outlook on life. And how she can combine heart with head to simply ask the rest of the world to do what is right.  

Recently I had the privilege of watching Michele Obama deliver one of the best speeches of 2020. What she had to say at the DNC opening night hit a nerve. She explained that she had spent recent times thinking about ‘empathy’ and the importance for all of us to recognise that ‘someone else’s experience has value too’. Obama pointed out that many of us practice it without a second thought. If we see someone who is in trouble, we try to help immediately. ‘It is not a hard concept to grasp.  It’s what we teach our children’.

In Melbourne, we are now feeling the full impact of the virus. We are still in one of the strictest restrictions Australia has ever experienced as a nation. We have to wear masks and keep a 1.8m distance from others when we go out. We cannot move beyond our 5-km radius unless we have a reason to do so. We are not allowed to travel to work unless we have a permit. And every evening, we have an emergency curfew taking away our nights. While still in Lockdown 4, the number of new COVID-19 cases are still fluctuating with extended restrictions. 

This frightening and uncertain environment is alarming to many of us. We are worried about our jobs, our children’s education, and our family’s health. Now, more than ever, we need to practise empathy, kindness, and compassion towards one another. It is a time for companies to step up to the challenge and make good the promises we have been touting for decades – ‘Our people are our most valuable assets’.  

 

Empathy is a connection

Empathy is the capacity to feel what someone else is feeling. It is about putting yourself in their shoes. It is the understanding that what they have to say and how they feel is valuable. It is about acting upon it so you can make meaningful changes to their lives and the lives of others.   

The measure of a good leader today is empathy. But it is easier said than done. The COVID-19 health crisis has forced leaders to extend themselves beyond their typical roles and under tremendous strain. We are juggling untested remote working, low staff productivity, and increased occupational safety and health concerns while also trying to balance our own private and professional lives.    

It is a lot on our plates. But we have to do what is right. Because it matters.  

Empathy is about what matters. Perhaps the best way to describe empathy comes from American professor and bestselling author, Brené Brown. Empathy according to Brown is about connection. You don’t have to suffer a terrible personal tragedy to be empathetic. You only need to connect to the other person’s emotions. If you can feel how they feel you are a lot closer to connecting with them on an authentic and personal level.

In her bestselling book, ‘I Thought It Was Just Me (But It Isn’t) (2008) Brown listed four attributes of empathy. Leaders can use these four attributes to develop empathy in the workplace.  

 

  • See the world as others see it.  

Put your judgements, bias, and feelings aside and ‘see’ the other person’s side instead. Don’t immediately label a staff ‘dinosaur’ or ‘incompetent’ just because he or she is struggling with technology. In the office, there are techies who can come to fix computer glitches immediately. Working from home, your staff may only have the kids and the family pet. 

  • Be non-judgemental.  

Don’t judge a staff just because they cannot log in eight-hours a day, five-days-a-week. They may have other pressing matters at home that you are not aware of.

  • Understand another person’s feelings.  

To be able to understand how others are feeling, you must first be in touch with your feelings. Managing from home is difficult. You are overstretching yourself and in danger of exhaustion and burnout. If you can recognise these feelings, then put them aside and focus on your staff. You may be able to sense what they are suffering too. 

  • Communicate your understanding. 

You must share this understanding with the other person. Rather than saying ‘It could be a lot worse…’ ‘At least you…’  Try saying ‘I’ve been there, I know’ or (an example from Brown’s book) ‘It sounds like you are in a hard place now.  Tell me more about it’.  

 

Empathy is not sympathy

Empathy is not sympathy. When you empathise with someone, you don’t feel sorry for them. You feel with them. 

When you sympathise with someone you are saying, ‘I feel sorry for you’. You are not connecting to how they are feeling. You are merely reacting to what they feel. How did you react when your staff told you about her concerns for her daughter who is sitting for Year 12 exams this year? Did you say something like ‘Everything happens for a reason’ or ‘At least she can do online learning’ or ‘I hope things get better for you.’   You are reacting to her feelings. You are saying, maybe things will improve. Let’s move on.  

Sympathy is a disconnection. It drives the person away; makes them more disengaged with their work and less motivated to deliver results.   

 

Empathy is practice

Empathy doesn’t come easy. It grows with time and experience. It takes practice. But if you persevere and keep at it, you will attain it. There will be times when you will miss the opportunity to show empathy to your staff. Don’t be afraid to walk back. Ask for a second chance so you can try again.  

Some of the things you can do to develop empathy are common sense. Be kind. Be curious. You can’t fix the world’s problems. You may not even be able to fix the individual’s problem, but you can listen. Listening is powerful. Try to understand what that individual is feeling not how you will feel if you are in a similar situation. Empathy is not about you. It’s about them. Help people know they are not alone. Let them know you are grateful they shared with you. And say, ‘thank you’.

 

Empathy is the little acts of kindness

Even the simplest acts of kindness can be deeply felt in these times of uncertainty. No act is too simple or a moment too small to bring comfort and healing to others. Now, is the chance for all leaders to show they understand and care about the challenges every one of their employees is going through. You can ease their fears by talking to them about the crisis and assuring them their futures are secure. You can give them a safe workplace.   

Show your employers you appreciate and value them with a simple ‘Thank you’.  Surprise the team with a pizza Zoom meeting. Send a sick staff a ‘Care package’.  Personalise e-greeting cards to all the fathers in the office. There are so many little things you can do to energise your staff to keep them engaged and productive.

As a leader, you can be vigilant for the signs of struggles such as distress, poor productivity, or social withdrawal. Raise it with the staff if you notice it. Ask them how they are feeling and really listen to what they have to say. If you can help, help.

 

Empathy is about looking after ourselves first before we can look after others

Sometimes we are so busy worrying about others, we forget about ourselves.  Managers cannot lead and inspire their teams if they are also struggling. On an aeroplane emergency, we are told to put on our oxygen masks first before we help others. The same applies here. If you don’t look after yourself first, you cannot model self-care and support to your staff.  

Finally, you must model the right behaviours. If you want our staff to be engaged virtually, you have to first demonstrate your enthusiasm and interest. If you want your staff to be disciplined, you have to define the boundaries and adhere to them ourselves. Be the role model that your staff needs. 

 

It seems that empathy has become the latest buzzword in business these days. I have no problem with this. If that is what it takes to help us survive this pandemic crisis, then ‘I ask you’ (to coin a famous Michele Obama’s catchphrase) to take on this shared responsibility.