When you boil down every piece of advice you’ve ever gotten as a leader, the common theme is empathy. Empathy when delivering bad news to your teams. Empathy when giving praise and feedback. Empathy when dealing with your own boss when you disagree with their decisions.
Empathy separates a good workplace from a great one and research has shown that the correlation between empathy and leadership performance was stronger than any other skill.
Unfortunately, when the going gets tough—missed revenue goals, acquisitions, blown deadlines, downsizing, layoffs—empathy isn’t always the first thing on people’s minds. Leadership doesn’t always come naturally. It’s something you have to work toward. You have to recognize the opportunities to show and demonstrate empathy. Because it’s your responsibility as a leader to foster that culture of empathy and guide your team when things get tough.
Wisetail employees Josh, Kelsey, and Cristy pose for the camera with their dogs Lincoln and Rue.
Be a Real Person
It’s really hard to connect with someone who’s afraid to show they’re a human. As a leader, part of your job is to keep it together, even when you don’t have all the answers. This doesn’t mean turning into a robot. Let your team get to know you—your hobbies, your passions, what you’re geeking out on outside of work. If you start, they’ll likely follow.
Building rapport and a true personal connection with your team takes time, but true empathy starts with building this foundation.
Take it Offline
Workplace communication tools are really having a moment. The ways teams are communicating are changing rapidly, as anyone who has ever received a Slack from the person in the desk right next to them can attest.
Tools like Slack make getting super fast answers easy, but it’s difficult to truly show and experience empathy when you’re not face-to-face. Teams are forged through interactions over time, each one building on the previous. It gets harder for these interactions to build on each other in a meaningful way when the vast majority of communication comes in the form of email, Slack, or project management queues.
If you’re not already having in-person catch-up style meetings with every person on your team each month, consider incorporating it into your evaluation processes. Take time to ask about how things are going outside of work and mean it. What things matter to them? What are they pursuing personally?
A distributed team doesn’t make it impossible to have these informal chats. Make time for one-on-one interactions through tools like Google Hangouts, Slack Video Chat, or Zoom. People who study these kinds of things have found that video conferencing is about 80% as effective as in-person communication.
Wisetail employees Ray, Jason, Ali, Madison, and Nick take part in the Union Square Hospitality Group workshop “Creating Raves”.
Lead With Charitable Assumption
In Danny Meyer’s best selling book Setting the Table, he explains the value of “Charitable Assumption,” or assuming an individual has the best intentions.
Meyer says, “Mindsets often become self-fulfilling prophecies, so what you think of someone is likely to happen.”
By holding off on rash judgments, not only are you setting the stage for a more positive and productive conversation, you’re helping yourself by not prematurely placing doubt in your own mind.
Listen More Than You Speak
Taking the time to listen to and truly hear people goes a long way. Listen without interjecting or providing unnecessary commentary. Ask questions when you’re unclear. Take notes when appropriate.
This extends beyond one-on-one conversations. Take time to listen to the conversations going on around you. Is your team collectively stressed? Are they frustrated? What tone are they using when communicating with one another? Taking inventory of the conversations around you can help guide your internal communications.
Wisetail employees take part in employee birthday’s and tech initiatives.
Lead By Example
When your boss makes a decision you don’t agree with, this is your opportunity to practice and model empathy. Take a step back and really put yourself in their shoes. A difficult decision is usually as hard to deliver as it is to receive. Consider how much stress they might feel and the pressure that rests on their shoulders and pushed them into this tough decision.
When relaying the information to your team, deliver the news with the right amount of respect. Don’t place blame on your superior. There are fewer ways to chip away a culture of empathy than finger pointing. Pause and give it time to sink in. Don’t feel like you need to fill the silence with words just for the sake of not making it awkward.
Your team is looking to you. The way you conduct yourself and behave influences each individual on your team. Practicing empathy. Connect with each team member. Cultivate an atmosphere where people feel comfortable opening up about hobbies or what’s captivated them lately. All this depends on small, empathetic actions. Those actions are cumulative. They might be small in the moment, but you’ll be surprised how quickly they stack up.