Editor’s note: This is a guest post by Patricia Bravo.
When I tell people that I do work around empathetic leadership, helping leaders strengthen how they use empathy as a tool for team member engagement, I typically receive one of three types of responses. I describe them as the advocate, the curious, and the skeptic. As much as I love to engage with the advocate and the curious, I’ve learned that I also love to engage with the skeptic. The skeptic may or may not be familiar with whether empathy can make you a better leader, but I do know they’re motivated to let me know they are uncertain about the approach. I value diverse perspectives, so I welcome these conversations and am especially curious to find out if these skeptics hold any myths about empathy.
Are You a Skeptic?
If you are, that can be good sign! In Carol Dweck’s book Mindset, she notes that skepticism with a willingness to explore is a sign of a growth mindset. My objective today is not to convince you to lead with empathy, but rather to offer a few ideas to consider (along with an experiment) so you can try it out for yourself and see what kind of results you get.
In talking with skeptics, one theme I’ve discovered is a belief that empathy in leadership works only when certain conditions are present. They wonder:
- How can one lead with empathy when they are in an environment of people who don’t value empathy?
- How can one remain empathetic in a situation where no one else around them is displaying empathy?
- How can one balance empathy and authority?
Empathetic leadership advances the relationship with the team member, regardless of the environment. In fact, one of the hallmarks of empathetic leadership is that you don’t need to invest time or money to set the stage — you can simply activate leading with empathy. Of course, like anything else, if the environment is already favorably disposed to welcoming empathetic leadership, it will be much more easily received.
For the skeptics though, let’s imagine an environment that might not be ripe for empathetic leadership. Maybe they:
- Work in an organization that thrives on competition
- Work in a function that rewards leaders only for accomplishing goals and not in combination with how they accomplished them
- Have a leader themselves who diminishes the impact of empathy
How to Start Using Empathetic Leadership
When faced with challenging circumstances, I encourage you to step forward in the face of uncertainty and proceed by slowly applying empathetic leadership in a way that meets the organization or team member where they are. (Tweet this.)
By this I mean regulate how you are using empathetic leadership. For example, if you are engaging with a team member who admires another leader that diminishes empathy, surrounding them with empathetic leadership at every turn is bound to drive disconnection versus strengthening your relationship with them. Conversely, if you slowly introduce empathetic leadership and progress (as small successes) is achieved, you’ll increase the likelihood of longer-term adoption and impact. Try one of these techniques to increase the likelihood of success when regulating empathetic leadership within challenging circumstances:
- Produce a Movie — Close your eyes and play a one-minute movie in your mind about the team member by visualizing what their experience might have been like the last 48 hours. Ask yourself these questions:
- What are their experiences?
- What are their reactions?
- What are their perspectives?
- Pick Up Subtle Clues – Invest time in picking up less obvious clues about what might be going on in the team member’s environment as well as their individual needs. Ask yourself these questions:
- What is going on with them as they see it?
- Are they under pressure?
- Do they need support?
- Communicate at the Best Time for Them – As a leader with a full plate, it’s easy to want team members to adapt to your schedule. Try turning the tables and engaging with them at a time that works for them, even if it creates a bit of an inconvenience for you. The results might surprise you.
In the next week, intentionally experiment in an environment you think may not be ripe for empathetic leadership by trying out one of the techniques above and doing the following:
- Select a technique which takes you a bit outside your comfort zone and try it out. (If you have time and it fits into the context of your interactions, validate what you’re discovering by trying the technique a few more times.)
- After you complete the experiment, evaluate it. Play back the situation and what took place. Who was involved? What did you do or say? What happened? How did you feel after each experience? Is there anything you would adapt if you were to try it again?
After your experiment, let us know when you think it is right to lead with empathy.
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