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Empathy Matters

Empathetic Leadership has been a hot topic recently, so I thought it would be a good subject to cover in this week’s Leading in Pajamas post.

I am not an expert. I only know what I’ve read on empathetic leadership and what I see and feel, so that’s what I’m sharing today.

Let’s start with a definition. Google describes empathy as: “the ability to understand and share the feelings of another.” In other words: being able to put yourself in the other person’s shoes.

So how does that play out from a leadership perspective and why is it important?

For starters, it’s difficult to lead if you don’t understand how to inspire and motivate. Your team is made up of people who are more than just your employees – they are brothers, sisters, moms, dads, husbands and wives – and a big portion of their lives and experiences are lived outside of their role as your employee. Your understanding of them needs to go deeper than just their place within the team. Ask yourself, ‘What motivates them? What are they worried about?’ Understanding your employees can help you be a better leader.

This shouldn’t just be applied to leadership; this is applicable in all our relationships. Times are difficult right now and no one intends to be mean or unempathetic, but we’re tired, we’re not sleeping well, we’re stressed. We’ve got a million new things on our minds and as a result, you may notice people being unusually short with one another. You may find yourself getting easily frustrated with a partner or a co-worker. There are challenges communicating that weren’t present before, or at least not as pronounced, and this may be causing us to react differently than we would normally. When we are in more stressful situations or feel overwhelmed, we may forget to lead or interact with empathy.

So, what can we do, as leaders or co-workers, to bring more empathy to the way we interact with each other, not just now, but always?

Below are some of the traits of empathetic people. Consider if you employ these traits in your interactions. This isn’t meant to be a finger-wag – you aren’t doing this therefore you are a bad leader or bad co-worker – this is meant to just be a starting point for some self-reflection and to ask yourself, “Is there something I can do better? Is there a way I can support my team more and be a better leader?” I know writing this has made me reflect on where I can do a better job.

Active Listening

Empathy comes from deep understanding and you can’t have deep understanding if you aren’t paying attention. We’ve all been in meetings where the other person is checking their phone or monitor because they’ve got a lot going on. How does that make you feel? Listening is not just about hearing the words someone is saying, it’s about paying attention, focusing on what they are and what they aren’t saying. At times, asking the right questions so you can dig deeper and get the whole picture.

Being Mindful

You are sending messages no matter what you do or don’t do – good or bad! When you don’t respond to that email, you are sending a message, just as much as when you do. You need to be mindful of the messages you send without saying or typing a word. What is your body language when you’re talking to someone? With video calls, your face is constantly front and centre; what are your facial expressions telling your team? You are allowed to have bad days! But take the steps to reflect on the non-verbal messages you are sending to others. And I think it’s really important when you are having a bad day, or you’re just not yourself, tell your team! This will help to prevent anyone from self-interpreting what they are seeing or hearing. We all know what assumptions do!

Being Authentic

This leads me to authenticity; being the real you. I think you should always aim to show the real you and not a fabricated version you think others want to see. This is even more important when trying to show empathy and building that human connection. Being open and showing vulnerability allows for others to open up more. I was speaking with a colleague a few weeks ago. It was probably only a month into the ‘isolation’ and when we got on the call he asked, “How are you?” That day everything was going wrong and I told him so. And he responded with, “Oh wow, that makes me feel so much better.” He didn’t mean because I was having a bad day, he meant because I was showing him that everything isn’t sunshine and rainbows, and it’s okay if it’s not for him too. How open and vulnerable are you being with your team? Are you acting like it’s business as usual or are you opening up and letting them know that you are struggling too?

Expressing Gratitude and Giving Praise

In the fundraising sector we often talk about expressing gratitude for our donors and the importance of it building relationships – but what about within our teams? Are you expressing gratitude to team members for their contributions? Are you giving praise for jobs well done or great efforts? Please don’t ever assume that people know how grateful you are for what they do, or that they know they are doing a good job. Everyone needs feedback, everyone needs to feel appreciated and that goes all ways. Give praise to team members, your direct reports and your manager. One small word of kindness could completely change someone’s day.

Being Intentional

That brings me to intent, meaning setting intentions to be more mindful, authentic and to express gratitude and actively listen. Just like with exercise, it takes several repetitions for it to become a habit, so set yourself an intent for the next week. It can be as simple as not looking at your phone while you are in a meeting or aiming to praise at least one person for something each day. See how that affects your relationships.

There are many, many more traits associated with empathetic behaviour. Let me know what you think is important and what you think could be improved upon. I think the more we talk about this and remind each other, the more empathy will become second nature. And remember, operating during this global pandemic is new for everyone! So if this is resonating and you realize you have room for improvement, don’t beat yourself up – everyone has room for improvement! Cut yourself some slack, set yourself an intention and just start doing better!

Remember: Maya Angelou said it best: “People will forget what you said, people will forget what you did, but people will never forget how you made them feel.”