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Leading with Empathy

Empathy isn’t a buzzword. It’s a way to unlock people’s potential. I learned this from my former boss, who I wasn’t a fan of at first. We got into a disagreement about something early on in our work together, and instead of letting me seethe, he took it as an opportunity to learn. He carved out time to see where I was coming from, and he continued to take the time to get to know me as we continued working together. 

As I grew in my career, that relationship meant everything to me. I’d ask my boss for advice and feedback, and it was rewarding when I exceeded his expectations — a far cry from where we originally started. 

That boss taught me that while building relationships takes time, the payoff is more than you ever thought it could be. And I’ve carried that into my management style to this day. 

What Does Empathy Mean in the Workplace? 

Practicing empathy at work involves building relationships and establishing mutual respect – and doing it consistently. In other words, empathy is earned, not given. 

People don’t respond well when taking direction from someone they don’t respect. But if you’ve built a genuine rapport, people are far more likely to do their best and know that your guidance is coming from a good place. 

For a manager, this means you’re constantly weighing your direct reports’ individual needs against company objectives. It means finding unique ways to encourage them based on their interests and skills, being sympathetic when something bad happens, and still figuring out how to meet your team’s goals.  

7 Ways to Practice Empathy 

When I manage managers, my goal is to get them to see the value in leading with empathy. Over the years, I’ve cultivated my strategy for doing it. Here are a few ways to build empathy among peers or direct reports. 

  1. Form relationships beyond the paycheck – This is the most important one. You need to get to know your coworkers on a deeper level. Give people your full attention when they’re speaking. Learn who their spouses are, understand their why, figure out what they like to do on the weekends. Remembering these tidbits lets people know you’re actually listening when they’re speaking and that you care for their well-being. 

    Don’t sleep on this. Most managers wait until their team is struggling to form close bonds – but by then, it’s far too late. You may have already lost their respect. 
  1. Make your one-on-ones count – I see many meetings starting without casual conversation – and that’s a missed opportunity. Don’t dive into the details when you’re meeting someone. Instead, take some time to ask how their day is going (sincerely) and how their loved ones are. It may seem like a small thing or a waste of time, but every interaction counts. 
  1. Acknowledge the good – To me, pessimism shouldn’t exist. Behind every challenge is an opportunity. Highlighting those opportunities when you can will motivate your team and make them feel like you’re cheering them on. That’s not to say that you should be overly positive, either. Recognize that some problems will be tough to solve, but you’re there to help. 
  1. Give direct feedback – Once you’ve built a strong relationship with someone, you owe it to them to be candid. Get to the point and give actionable steps for moving forward. And remember, you know this person now, so think hard about conveying your message in a tone and style that they are most receptive to. Show that you care about their specific growth and success. 
  1. Reciprocate – A relationship built on empathy is a give and take. You can’t receive unless you’ve given too. For me, only when I’ve poured enough time and effort into something can I make a withdrawal. So, when you see someone struggling, help them. Finding little ways to consistently help those you manage goes a long way. You never know when the roles will flip, and you find yourself leaning on them for support.
  1. Let people be their 100% self – As a manager, it’s your job to create an environment where your direct reports can do their best work. And this goes hand-in-hand with developing deep relationships. Knowing what makes people tick, what’s going on in their life, and what they excel at will help you foster an atmosphere that people want to work in. 
  1. Lead by example – People are looking to you for guidance, so show them the way. Do things that add to the emotional piggy bank. Start your meetings with chit-chat. Discuss the hard things behind the scenes with your family or friends. Stay late with your team when you’re trying to hit a deadline. When your people see you doing this, they are likely to behave the same way. 

Leading with empathy drives success 

A majority of your life will be spent working. Why not make a point of connecting with those around you? I’ve found that truly empathetic leaders have better outcomes and, if I had to guess, probably have more fun at work. 

The truth is, people want to work with people who want to work with them. And that’s only becoming clearer over time. The new workforce expects a level of connection with their bosses and colleagues that we haven’t held ourselves to in the past. Building a world-class organization today takes empathy, and it starts with you. 

Want to be part of an organization that prioritizes empathy? Looking to hire someone with empathy? Contact us at Planet Professional