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    EMPATHETIC LEADERSHIP: Becoming a Leader Who Cares

    istock photo

    istock photo

    I recently had an opportunity to interact with a variety of people in a service based organization for a prolonged period of time. The nature of these interactions was often stressful for myself and those around me.

    Performance of their job duties required a high level of quality control and process focus. To break the tension, I occasionally joked with them that they needed to avoid making any errors because it would require them to complete too much paperwork.

    But after a while, I began to realize that despite the pressure of their roles, most of them displayed a remarkable level of empathy. They didn’t simply act like they cared about their client population, they really did seem to understand, and they actively advocated for them. It struck me that many of these individuals are not only in roles that are appropriately aligned with their giftedness, but that they are part of an organization that genuinely cares about their work. This led me to think about the culture and the “feel” in many other organizations; and to wonder how employees, clients and other stakeholders experience them in the context of empathy.

    Understanding Empathy
    Empathy is the capacity to understand or feel what another person is experiencing from within the other person’s frame of reference (Wikipedia). As one of the core areas of emotional intelligence, it demonstrates an awareness of others in terms of what they’re feeling and how those feelings arise. It is placing yourself in
    another person’s shoes, and activating not just your physical senses but your intellectual and emotional senses, to identify with their feelings. Conversely, leaders who lack empathy, make decisions without considering the impact on their people, or considering their desires and reactions. They may fail to communicate effectively or even consider the impact that changes have on people.

    Organizations that place a high value on empathy recognize that engaged and connected employees and clients are part of the key to their success. They understand the importance of delivering results and accomplishing objectives, but they know that how you do it is as important as getting it done. Their leaders set the example in their behaviors, and the leadership priorities used in decision making.

    Empathetic Leaders CARE
    Here are four traits of leaders who display empathy with their teams.

    Compassionate – They demonstrate tangible concern when others go through adversity. Rather than constantly putting on the “corporate face” or approaching every issue based on business needs, they focus on addressing the human needs. For example, companies whose employees are impacted by tornadoes or earthquakes will adjust company policies to support them and their families until they get back on their feet.

    Approachable – When employees know that their leaders care about them, they feel comfortable interacting with them in formal and informal settings. Such leaders typically make it a point to reach out to employees, and talk with them about a variety of business and non-business events. You may find such leaders sharing lunch with a table of employees in the cafeteria, initiating conversation with team members in the hallway, or remembering personal aspects of peoples’ lives.

    Relatable – These leaders are transparent in sharing experiences that demonstrate what they have in common with others in the organization. At all levels, they emphasize common needs and challenges along with ensuring equal treatment. These leaders pepper their commentary with information that demonstrates their humanness, and the ups and downs of life. Sheryl Sandberg, COO of Facebook has dealt rather publicly with the sudden death in May 2015 of her husband David Goldberg. She demonstrates that as such experiences impact everyone regardless of socioeconomic or organizational level; we all “bring them to work” to deal with in some capacity.

    Encouraging – These leaders are genuinely interested in the best outcomes for others. They will support employees’ personal and professional goals, even if it appears that they may need to leave the company to attain them. One company in western Michigan has its employees meet with managers to establish personal, professional and financial goals. Their focus on employees has reduced annual turnover to less than 10%, and increased customer retention to 98%. Their motto is “Take good care of your people and they’ll take good care of your clients.”

    CAREing Leaders Take Action
    Effective empathy is best coupled with corresponding action. Because once you experience this level of social awareness, as a leader it is incumbent upon you to make leadership decisions that reflect this value.

    Years ago, I was a part of an organization that went through a significant downsizing initiative. It was very painful and very public. Overall, we attempted to communicate frequently with employees to let them know what was happening and why. We tried to anticipate their concerns and respond to them, and encouraged leaders to have candid conversations with their teams. Employees at all levels were impacted, and even those who remained had a range of emotions. At a team level, those leaders who demonstrated greater empathy with their employees rebounded faster and become productive more quickly.

    Recently, a colleague told me about a newly appointed CEO who conducted an employee town hall during his first day on the job. He noted to those gathered that their employee engagement scores had increased in the past year, and asked them why. They responded that under his predecessor’s leadership, they finally felt that they had a leader who cared about them. Not surprisingly, given his priority on meeting with employees, the new CEO had a similar value and committed to continuing that approach.

    So consider this familiar phrase. “Employees don’t care how much you know, until they know how much you care.” And they’ll never know how much you care until you show them.

    Copyright 2017 Priscilla Archangel

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