I recently met with a new client for the first time who is looking to improve the way her leadership team functions. She told me, “I just wish our leadership team was better at showing empathy. It’s like everyone is so focused on their own perspective that they aren’t taking the time to think about how their actions impact everyone else on the team.” Unfortunately, this sentiment is one I hear from many organizational executives even when they know that empathy is regarded by most employees as a critical leadership skill they want in their supervisor.
So, when you have a team with varying levels of empathetic abilities, what can you do to build this as a core leadership skill? One of the best ways to start is by modeling the empathy-building behaviors you want to see them exhibit more of.
Focus first on enhancing active listening skills. Make sure you are giving those around you your full attention. That means setting aside your cell phone and turning away from your computer screen if you’re in person and if you are remote, make sure to remove distractions as much as possible from your direct view so that you can focus your attention on the person(s) you are interacting with. Incoming email message alerts and having immediate access to our cell phones make it easy to become distracted and more difficult to stay focused. One pro tip to consider when you are in a virtual meeting is to close out your email inbox and place your cell phone face down away from your immediate work area.
Don’t wait to show you care. Building an effective workplace culture is rooted in positive workplace relationships. Not everyone on your team has to be best friends or agree with one another at all times, but everyone does operate better in an environment where they feel respected and cared for. Look for ways to show you care about your employees and colleagues on a regular basis and pay attention to how workplace challenges or times of transition might be impacting those around you. Showing care in the workplace might involve asking for others’ opinions before making a decision or showing your appreciation for their contributions. You can also try voicing how you feel to others by saying something such as, “I’m so glad we got to work together on this report.” Or “I care about how our team is managing their work-life balance.” Or “Let’s spend some time talking about what expectations we have of each other as a leadership team.”
Acknowledge others’ perspectives and experiences. Even if you aren’t able to offer direct assistance in a particular situation, you can still offer an acknowledgment of what others may be going through or bringing it to you to discuss. Acknowledgments validate another person’s experience and can convey a strong message of empathy and caring. You don’t have to agree with someone to offer an acknowledgment of the situation. It can be as simple as saying “I imagine that’s been a tough situation for you to deal with.” Or “I recognize how much effort you are putting into making this project successful.” It can also be meaningful to simply offer the other person a heartfelt moment of gratitude by saying something like, “Thank you for bringing this to my attention.” Or “Thank you for trusting me enough to share this information.”
Be honest and as transparent as you can. Even during tough or uncertain times, or when you have to deliver less than positive news, people appreciate leaders who are forthcoming about what they know and what they don’t know. Try to deliver information in a timely way with as much insight as possible. If you can offer an explanation or reasoning as to why a decision was made or what led to a particular business choice, it can help employees to process the change more effectively and reduce the chances of backchannel gossip and resulting conflict.
Even if showing empathy at work isn’t your strong suit, following the above tips can go a long way in helping you build stronger connections with your team and model for them how they can cultivate their “empathy muscles” and leadership talents. And…just maybe…developing and modeling your own empathy skillset will also help you feel more supported in your own role at work.
~ Tara Taylor, MPA (she/her)