No one cares how much you know until they know how much you care.
Theodore Roosevelt, former President of the USA
Is empathy a value we are born with? Do we develop empathy if we see other empathetic people and the way they behave with us?
Or maybe it’s the opposite- we become empathetic when we don’t see empathy in our entourage?
I believe we develop empathy from an early age. If you observe children play, it wouldn’t take long before you spot the empathetic one. If one child is crying, the empathetic one will go up to them and ask what’s wrong, will give them their toy or a hug to make them feel better.
How is it with grownups? Is empathy valued in a team or in the values of a leader?
I always appreciated people who are there for you when you need them. It could be just a few words, a hug or a look that gives you the feeling you are not alone.
There have been so many moments this kind of behaviour actually made me go on, helped me to be more confident and have hope for the better.
Empathy was part of my leadership style. And even when someone missed a deadline, I made sure I was the first to know and managed the situation before it was too late.
Empathy builds trust. People don’t hide their mistakes, they become more collaborative and even more productive.
Empathy is seeing with the eyes of another, listening with the ears of another and feeling with the heart of another.
Alfred Adler, renowned psychotherapist
During my career, I have seen three types of empathy with different reactions to it:
1. Empathy at the right time, in a needed amount.
This is when someone really needs to be listened to and comforted for five minutes. Afterwards, you ask them how they’re doing only once in a while. This is very much appreciated by most people.
2. Empathy out of debt.
When someone was empathetic with you, and you feel the need to return the favour, even though it is not in your nature. If it’s not fake, it could be ok. It still might be perceived unnatural if you are not usually having an empathetic behaviour and it’s better to remain authentic (see my article Standing out, yet being authentic, is it possible?).
3. Empathy overdose.
When you are empathetic with everyone, all the time, even when it’s not needed. It can be annoying and perceived as fake or close to flattery.
An empathetic leader is a leader sought by many employees. At the same time, there are opinions that empathetic leaders are spoiling their employees too much and cannot be demanding, thus cannot bring results.
I would say it’s totally wrong. Based on my experience, my team and I had the best results when we had a relationship based on trust and empathy.
Certainly, some people bring better results under pressure and have different needs in order to achieve the business’s goals. But I never heard that empathy was an obstacle for getting better results.
On the contrary. I think people don’t need to be afraid of their manager in order to show respect and get the job done.
There is still one thing that needs to be solved. What should be done when empathetic leaders have big teams, who are always having their doors open, listen to everyone, and try to help.
At the end of the day, they don’t have enough time to do anything else besides that.
There are options:
- If by now this approach has brought great results and the involvement of the team, leaders should delegate the rest of their responsibilities and keep supporting their team emotionally.
- Create middle-level management, so they can focus on business also.
- Have several hours per week of opened doors is enough.
- Coach their team to not be so dependent (see my article How coaching your team makes you a better leader)
And the list goes on.
Learning to stand in somebody else’s shoes, to see through their eyes, that’s how peace begins. And it’s up to you to make that happen. Empathy is a quality of character that can change the world.
Barack Obama, former President of the USA
If you are not naturally an empathetic person, it could be difficult to show that characteristic without giving an impression of being fake.
Still, it is worthwhile to try. You will see that there will be a big difference in relationships, work environment, and results overall.
There is a need for more empathetic leaders.
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