“I know leading with empathy is important. I just don’t know how to do it.” This is what I hear from many senior leaders and managing partners I coach.
There’s a lot of talk about empathy as a fundamental leadership strength, yet many leaders are not empathetic. They got where they are because they worked hard and demonstrated excellence in their field but when they are finally in the leadership seat, they discover the skills they now need to be great are more people-oriented.
They are used to solving problems at lightning speed. Yet now, they have an entire team that needs to move their vision forward. There are direct reports they must mentor and individuals with very different ways of working that they must engage. They can’t simply expect others to be as committed as they are, contribute at their level, and do the job exactly as they would do it.
So, where do you start if you are an executive who must learn to lead with empathy?
WHAT IT MEANS TO BE AN EMPATHETIC LEADER
First, let’s look at the definition of empathy by Daniel Coleman, the father of Emotional Intelligence (EQ):
Empathy is the ability to sense others’ feelings and perspectives and take an active interest in their concerns. People who demonstrate this competency are able to pick up cues and understand what is being felt and thought by others.
Quite simply, leaders must be able to connect with others, understand what they are feeling, why they think the way they do, and what motivates them to do their best. An empathetic leader learns these things and interacts with each person accordingly. It’s about “meeting people where they are.”
The truth is, it is fairly easy to have empathy towards others like us, whom we like and respect. It is much more difficult to do so with those who have different perspectives than our own. The key here is to be open to putting ourselves in their shoes.
Eric, a well-respected managing partner of a law firm in his 50s, mentioned during coaching that he knew he needed to be more empathetic. He admitted having a real challenge with the people who triggered him, or those he didn’t see as strong contributors to the firm.
Then one day, one of the associates called him on the weekend, asking to talk to him. This happened the summer of the George Floyd murder. The associate, a man of color, spent an hour telling Eric what it was like to grow up in America as a black person, how his family taught him he should behave when driving to the grocery store and what to do if the police pulled him over.
Eric was shocked; he didn’t know this was an everyday experience for American black men. He wept in our next coaching session while retelling the conversation. Eric realized his tears were him experiencing empathy.
STEPS TO DEVELOP EMPATHY IN LEADERSHIP
Leading with empathy doesn’t mean we should always be moved to tears but it does require being open to reading and feeling others’ emotions, and understanding where they are coming from. To do so, we must spend time getting to know them, their world, and their challenges.
Looking back at the definition above, we can identify steps to practice to become more empathetic leaders:
- Listening well: that means, with real presence and interest – not while multitasking!
- Watching for non-verbal cues: paying attention to other people’s body language and facial expressions that may be in contrast to the words they are speaking.
- Seeing (and respecting) others’ perspectives: great leaders stay curious about different styles of working, and embrace the fact there might be ways of getting things done other than their own.
Learning to lead with empathy is the path towards being a great leader. It is a skill that takes time and authenticity; first and foremost, it requires caring for the people as much as we care for the work, the goals, and the outcomes.
ON TO YOU
Are you an executive seeking to lead with more empathy?
What challenges are you experiencing along the way?