As an experienced and successful leader, I know the importance of empathy.
Empathy is the ability to understand and share the feelings of another. Sounds easy, but it’s not. It is not easy to know what it is like to walk in someone else’s shoes. It takes time and a lot of listening, it takes imagination, curiosity and the ability to be truly present with them.
It is easy to assume we understand or think we know what we would do in somebody else’s situation. We tend to oversimplify things, we tick off we know what happened, how things work and assume we understand it, but the understanding step is not that straight forward. We are taking short cuts in our brains from our past experiences and making assumptions we understand, we are over simplifying the issue. Often, we quickly jump into solution mode because we like to solve things. So here we are solving an issue that we don’t understand, and then we get annoyed with the person for not taking our advice! But we skipped the important part, so the person not taking our advice is frustrated because we don’t get them.
Empathy is how we connect to each other on a genuine level. This is how we demonstrate that we care about each other and really see each other. To effectively lead your team, you need a deep connection and your team needs to know you will support them. As a leader your job can often be to lead your team in a direction that they may not want to go, change is everywhere, and we generally don’t like it. You cannot take your team with you if you do not care for them and understand them. With a foundation of support, they will trust you, speak more openly to you, be more engaged and achieve much more.
How do you practice empathy?
Care about the small things, the big things and everything in between. Take your staff for a coffee or go for a walk. Create safe spaces for your team to talk to you by listening and asking questions, resisting the temptation to assume, judge and talk too much. Ask your team how they feel about things and keep asking questions in a genuine and curious way to explore their feelings. Do not expect your staff to always be willing to do this, we all have tactics to avoid tough questions, we might just tell people what they want to hear, or we may find ways to deflect. It takes time to trust people and share our feelings. If you demonstrate to your team that you are open to different views you will help them feel comfortable to be open and honest. Never dismiss a team member’s feelings or comments as this will send the message that you do not care, dismiss one team members feelings and you may as well broadcast to your whole team that they do not matter.
I sincerely believe long term success comes from putting your people first. It is tough work whipping people or dragging them up the hill and when they get to the top they will carry the scars and resent you for them. If you can climb the hill with your team you will all celebrate when you get to the top and your team will look forward to the next climb.