Emotional Intelligence Part III: Exercising Empathy

Concerned leader in meeting

June 2, 2021 

I was talking recently with an executive who was in the process of resigning from a company she’d joined less than a year ago. Until now, she had enjoyed a notable career and prided herself on driving results in difficult situations. She shared that she had begun the job in the throes of the pandemic, so not only was she juggling shifting family responsibilities, she’d not had the opportunity to meet with colleagues in person. She felt this inhibited her ability to establish relationships, feel connected to the organization, and ultimately, it affected her ability to be successful. I asked her, looking back, what could have been done differently that would have resulted in a better outcome. She thought for a moment and responded, “I think that if I could have had a stronger connection with my boss, and had her support, I could have overcome the other hurdles. I just didn’t feel like she was invested in me or my work; I’ve always been able to get results, regardless of the obstacles – but the situation this past year really inhibited my ability to learn and navigate the organization, so I couldn’t influence and access resources the way I normally would. Having my boss’s support wouldn’t have changed the fact that we were working in a pandemic, but I think it would have made a difference in my success.” 

In an article I wrote for Association for Talent Development (ATD) last fall, I interviewed Brian Kropp, Group Vice President at Gartner Group and human capital thought leader. He commented that, “the best leaders will look more like social workers than MBAs. Not in a squishy feely way, but the mindset of understanding the whole person and driving a successful business in an environment that allows people to thrive in both their personal and professional lives.” It’s more important than ever that leaders cultivate the ability to understand what and how their team members are feeling, the hurdles they are encountering, and where they need support. As a boss, your role is to create the conditions in which your team can perform at its best; in order to do that, you must first understand your team. 

In our previous newsletters focusing on leading with emotional intelligence, we’ve largely focused on the self: knowing your strengths and weaknesses, and learning how to manage your emotions and reactions in any given situation. Self-knowledge and self-management are foundational for leadership; the next level is understanding others and meeting them where they are – in other words, leading with empathy. 

Exercising empathy is the act of trying to understand and share the feelings of another in any context. While it’s an action we may more comfortably incorporate in our personal lives, we are still getting accustomed to its presence and deployment in the workplace. While some organizations have been taking steps to encourage empathy in leadership over the past decade, the pandemic forced a stronger emphasis: suddenly, the barrier between work and home vanished and leaders were privy to their teams’ personal lives on an everyday basis. Video calls from our kitchens and bedrooms, with children and pets and the rest of our lives in the background, gave leaders a front-row seat to their colleagues’ humanity. In this new world, the ability to empathize has become one of the most important skills a leader has in her toolkit to build stronger relationships, deeper connections, and – ultimately – a more effective workforce. 

How Well Do You Know Your Team? 

The concept of putting yourself in another’s shoes is simple enough to grasp, but what does leading with empathy look like day-to-day? It starts with curiosity: a genuine interest in their lives, hopes, dreams, and struggles. This information allows you to “personalize” your leadership for each of your team members, to best meet their needs and set them up for success. 

Here’s a “pop quiz” to test your connection to your team members. 

Think of three members of your team you work with closely. Reflecting on them, can you answer the following questions? 

  1. What ignites them and brings them joy? (What are they intrinsically motivated to work on, and how can you play to their strengths?) 
  1. What depletes them? (What do they struggle with?) 
  1. What are their biggest personal and professional challenges? (What is going on at home and within the team that affects them mentally/emotionally/physically?) 
  1. In what ways do they need and want support? (How can you provide that support?) 
  1. How do they like to be recognized? (Verbal or written praise, public or private?) 
  1. What are their career goals? (How can you help them achieve these goals?) 

If you know the answers to most of these questions, chances are you have a good pulse on what each member of your team is bringing to the table each day. If answering these questions was especially challenging, there are a few ways you can start connecting on a deeper level, starting today. 

Check In Regularly 

The importance of 1:1 check-ins with your employees can’t be overstated, and it’s easy to get started. Connecting for even 15 minutes a week will help you build your relationship, and give you insight into their unique challenges, successes, and goals. Now that many offices have shifted to remote work, being intentional about scheduling face time is even more important, as it won’t happen organically: you miss the hallway conversations or impromptu stops at someone’s desk to talk for a few minutes. Putting the time in with your employees will help them feel seen and heard, boosting loyalty and retention – which in turn will save you time and money in search fees, lost productivity, etc., in the long run. 

Practice Active Listening 

One of the most basic human needs is to feel seen and heard. Give your team members your full attention when you’re meeting and seek to understand their point of view: 

  • When an employee brings up an issue, instead of giving them advice or a definitive answer, validate their feelings and seek to understand. For example, you can say, “tell me more about that.” 
  • Listen without making judgments. Let any critical or assuming thoughts devolve and absorb new information with openness and compassion. 
  • When you talk, consider the acronym W.A.I.T., which stands for “Why Am I Talking?” Release your own agenda and practice self-awareness when speaking. 
  • Exhibit open and inviting body language to add energy to the conversation. 

Practice Mirroring 

Build rapport with your employees by finding common ground and matching their tone and demeanor, a process known as mirroring. By doing this, you can perceive how they are feeling, what is important – and sometimes what they aren’t saying. You might notice that the team member seems stressed or tired – it gives you the opportunity to ask them if they are OK and whether you can help. Mirroring helps you deeply listen and connect, so you can adapt to your employee’s needs in the moment. 

Put Yourself in Someone Else’s Shoes 

Whether you’re delivering big news or just hopping on a short zoom call, always remember to consider not only what you say, but how you say it. Think about how your message will land on your various audience members: what stake do they have in the information you’re sharing? What emotions might surface? Be aware of your tone, attitude, and body language, and continue to “read the room” as you disseminate information. 

While empathy has always been an important aspect of effective leadership, it has taken on greater urgency and importance over the past year. Leaders who continue to cultivate curiosity and compassion will find that their energy is well-directed, fostering an environment where teams thrive because of their humanity, not in spite of it. 

Patricia Carl