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Three Ways to Bring More Empathy to Your Leadership

Over the coming weeks, we are double-clicking on the five Fluencies that create the connected framework for The New Language of Leadership. Today, we’ll zoom in on Empathy. 

Our world has gotten exponentially more human and personal in 2020 as work and home boundaries have blurred. This prolonged period of uncertainty and volatility has taken its toll on employees and leaders. Many of us are feeling overwhelmed, insecure, worried and tired. And there doesn’t seem to be an end to it. 

If ever there was a time for leaders to tap into their humanity, vulnerabilitycompassion, humility, and power up our capacity to lead with empathy, this is it. What we’re talking about is what’s at the heart of how you lead people and be a human-centric leader.  

If this makes you cringe or uncomfortable or you believe emotions don’t belong in the workplace, this fluency will be your biggest and most challenging learning. 

What Does Empathy Look Like?  

Empathy is outward, not inwardIt’s feeling with, not feeling for. It is the ability to communicate and lead by understanding others. We do that by stepping into the shoes of the people we lead so we can see things from their point of view. When we do that, we connect, listen, and learn. We understand what someone is feeling, and we communicate we are hearing through our body language, reflecting or simply holding silence. We don’t compare, diminish, judge, or dismiss. We listen and consider  

Why IIImportant 

Maria Ross, author of The Empathy Edge, shows how companies who lead with empathy see increased financial success, productivity, retention and engagement among other benefits. In building the case she shares compelling stats and inspiring storiesIn her words: “I sought to rewrite the prevailing cultures script about business success: one could be compassionately competitive, kindly ambitious and empathetic yet decisive.”  

As humans, we are wired for connection. Gallup found that among all employees, we all share some fundamental needs:  

Know me.  

Care about me.  

Help me grow.  

Hear me.  

Help me see my importance.   

We all have an innate need to be seen, heard and understood. It fuels our self-worth, builds confidence and increases motivation. 

As leaders, when we care and lead with empathy, we connect, build trusting relationships and move forward as a team and as an organizationIt’s the heart of being a successful leader. 

What IYou Aren’t Good At It?  

Empathy comes easier to some than to others. When I did my Emotional Intelligence Assessment (EQi), empathy was one of my lower attributesIt’s not that I step on kittens or don’t have emotions, it’s just not a goto strength for meOnce I had that awareness and learned we can focus on and build strengths that aren’t as accessible, I was able to dial it upNow, instead of diving into the agenda to get things done, I start by checking in with people and connecting. Because now I know you only get things done with people 

If you aren’t naturally empathetic and struggle with expressing or attending to emotions, this is a hard skill to grasp. The good news is empathy is not simply a genetic gift; it can be learned. We first have to unlearn and let go of our rooted beliefs that hold us back, and then be compassionate with ourselves and others as we learn 

Putting Empathy in Action  

Adopt a Coach Mindset  

Coach Mindset is the first and foundational fluency in the New Language of LeadershipBy its nature, it is an empathetic mindset. A Coach Mindset seeks to understand others. It brings curiosity, powerful questions and deep listening to every conversationCuriosity goes hand in hand with humilityit means you don’t have all the answers and are always open to learning moreAnd, when we are in service of others without judgement or assumptions and allow them to find their own solutions (the essence of coaching), we build trust and unlock learning, capacity and resilience. Coaching and empathy are inextricably linked. To be an effective leader coach is to be an empathetic leader.  

What is one action you can take this week to bring more of a Coach Mindset to your leadership 

 Build Emotional Intelligence and Emotional Courage   

“If you’re willing to feel everything, you can do anything.”This is the premise of Peter Bregman’s book, Leading with Emotional CourageHe says that the hard stuff gets avoided because we don’t want to feel (uncertain, exposed, awkward, embarrassed, disappointed, anger—name your emotion). We have been taught to avoid emotions, especially in the workplace, but the more we can understand our own thoughts, feelings and emotions the more we can understand someone else’s.  

Emotional Intelligenceour ability to recognize and understand emotions ourselves and others, and our ability to use this awareness to manage our behavior and relationships, is a sought-after skill. And leading people through massive change, pervasive uncertainty and ongoing volatility requires us to strengthen it. If you’re curious about where you’re at on this continuum, you might start with an Emotional Intelligence assessment so you “start where you stand.”   

What’s one brave conversation you might be avoiding that could change things for you and the other person?  

Stay Connected  

When COVID hit, Gary Kelly the CEO of Southwest Airlines took the time to call all 60 of his leaders to simply find out how they were doing. No agenda. No tough questions. Just care, concern, and connection. 

How we feel impacts our work. With the shift to working from home, people are missing the spontaneous interactions the workplace brings about and are feeling overwhelmingly disconnected. Weekly 1:1 checksins (not checkupsto see how your people are doing have never been more importantAsk people to walk you through a typical day in their world. And really listen to understand their barriers, challenges, choices and pressuresAsk people what support from you looks like for them. Seeking to understand allows you to co-create solutions that work for people and the organization. Done with empathy and care, it builds trust and creates a safe environment so real conversations can happen   

How are your team members doing emotionally?  

What’s one thing you can do to show empathy this week?  

Mother Theresa, who lived her life with empathy said, “Let no one ever come to you without leaving better and happier.”  That’s the aspiration for the empathetic, human-centric leader.  

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