Leading With Empathy

Leadership is about empathy. It is about having the ability to relate to and connect with people for the purpose of inspiring and empowering their lives.

Oprah Winfrey


Empathy gets confused with sympathy, often leading to the false assumption that showing empathy towards another person is patronising or a sign of weakness. Empathy is the ability to understand and share the feelings and thoughts of another person. Sympathy, on the other hand, is the feeling of sorrow or pity for another person’s misfortune. Sympathy is feeling sorry for someone, and offering consolation. Empathy, on the other hand, is picturing yourself in someone else’s situation, in order to better understand what they are going through, and how you might be able to help or support them. If you ever find yourself in a position where you have to choose between the two, choose empathy. It’s better to offer support and help than a mere “Sorry to hear of…”

Empathy is powerful. It helps to deepen relationships, improves engagement and also lets people know that they are not alone, that there is someone else who understands what they are going through, and is prepared to support them.

We practice empathy in our personal relationships. If our sons or daughters display emotions or behaviours which are out of the ordinary, we don’t ignore them or punish them. We encourage them to talk to us about what they are experiencing, in order that we can understand it too, and support them in whatever way we can. The same goes with our extended families and close friends. Whenever we sense that something may be wrong, we communicate with them, understand their situations and offer any help we can. This strengthens our bonds with these people, because we are letting them know that we are by their side as they tackle whatever challenges they may be currently facing.

So, why can’t we practice empathy in the workplace?! Daily life is a challenge, and unfortunately, we can’t leave all of our troubles at the door when we get to work. No matter how much we want to. Naturally, this affects our productivity. I’ve experienced this as a member of a team, and later as a manager in charge of my own teams. Managing your workload, and also that of your team, is a balancing act at the best of times. When things in your personal life go wrong, that balancing act becomes even harder.

Organisations, however, are interested in the productivity of their workforce and how much value can be provided. This is why KPIs (Key Performance Indicators) exist, so that we can each see how well we are performing. In this way, we are able to quantify the value which we provide to the organisation and its stakeholders, which is a great thing to have when making a case for a pay raise. This is a double-edged sword, though, because when we hit a rough patch and our productivity drops, there is nowhere to hide.

Your KPI numbers won’t always be high, no matter how hard you try. Companies and industries experience difficult times, which in turn can make it harder for you to attract new business or whatever your KPIs require. The good news is that bad patches are normally short-lived and you soon bounce back.

It’s when your figures are low over a sustained period of time, several weeks or months, that the trouble starts. When this happens, there is always an underlying issue causing a drop in performance. However, too many line managers are blinded to this simple fact by their ego. I see it all the time when consulting. The line manager often takes the performance of their direct reports personally. When they are doing well, they see it as a reflection of their strengths as a manager. When they perform poorly, they take it personally, as though the team member is failing to meet their usual standards on purpose. Their solution? Performance Management.

Performance Management is an activity and set of processes that aim to maintain and improve employee performance in line with an organisation’s objectives. While designed as something positive, it is often used as a stick to beat underperformers with. At a time when they need help and support to get back on track, they are given unrealistic objectives which they will not meet, and when those conditions are not met, they are sacked. In this way, a company will lose some of its best members simply because they punished them instead of supported them through a challenging time. It is, essentially, bullying but done in such a way that nothing can be done about it.

This is where empathy comes in. If a colleague or member of your team is struggling, talk to them. If they don’t feel comfortable talking to you, offer them counselling, but understand that they are going though a difficult time and need help instead of more pressure. Be the difference. Just because other managers might punish a struggling colleague, be the one who listens, supports and helps them instead. Help a colleague through a difficult time, and they will soon be back to their productive best. Furthermore, you will have developed a stronger professional relationship with them, and they will be more engaged than ever. After all, employees want to feel part of something, knowing that someone cares and that they are being listened to. Countless studies and surveys have shown that how people are treated and made to feel in the workplace is more important than how much they are paid.

I have talked often about congruence and authenticity, and this is a perfect example of why it is so important. If you behave with empathy towards others in your personal life, then there is no reason why you should not do the same when at work. After all, you are working with people, not robots. These people have their own demons to face and problems to overcome, the same as your  family and friends. Just because you are not related with someone or didn’t grow up with them, that is no excuse not to treat them with some respect and empathy. There shouldn’t be a difference between your personal and professional self, and if you find that there is and you can’t do anything about it, then perhaps a career change is in order.


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