Empathy and life: I was THAT mom. You know – the one that carried the big bag and pulled out food, snacks, Band-Aids, juice boxes. I was a walking, talking, bag-carrying emergency preventer!
When my children were around 10 and seven, our family took a trip to San Francisco. Everywhere we turned, homeless people sat on the street begging for food or money. My youngest could not believe his eyes. He was heartbroken. It turns out every snack, sandwich or juice box that I gave him ended up in the hands of a homeless person that entire trip. He, even at that young age, put himself in their shoes and did what he could.
He was born with empathy. And it has served him well, as he’s transitioned into adulthood. I however, am not a naturally empathic person. And, over the years I’ve found that it has made it harder for me to be a great leader. Thankfully, empathy is a skill that can be learned.
Empathy is about being concerned about the human being and not just about their output — Simon Sinek
The dictionary defines empathy as “the ability to understand and share the feelings of another.” Oftentimes, empathy is confused with sympathy. We think that having empathy means being a push-over or agreeing with everything everyone else thinks and says. Truly though, empathy in leadership looks a lot different than being a doormat!
Empathy actually means you are able to see the needs of others, acknowledge their feelings and understand how it affects their world view. You don’t have to agree with another person’s perspective in order to empathize with them. You don’t have to be homeless to be able to understand that being homeless is less than ideal.
So, at this point, you may be wondering why it matters. Leaders don’t necessarily have to care about others’ feelings or points of view. It’s a “feel-good” goal, not realistic, necessary or even possible in our our fast paced world. Why should you even bother putting yourself in someone else’s shoes?
In a nutshell? It’s all about trust. When an employee feels listened to, they begin to trust that they will be provided with the tools and assistance for success. When your employees trust you, they are more willing to collaborate with others. They no longer fear failure and are more likely to take risks. Employees who are struggling know that they can improve performance and excel in an environment where they feel understood.
Being a leader is more than just wanting to lead. Leaders have empathy for others and a keen ability to find the best in people…not the worst…by truly caring for others — Henry Gruland
So what can those of us who were not born with an abundance of empathy do? First and foremost, focus on someone other than yourself. Listen first; speak if you have to. Pay attention to what your employees have to say. Ask questions and listen to their answers. It may not come naturally, but it can become a habit with diligence and focus. The rewards will be improved productivity. And, at the end of the day, isn’t that what we want?
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