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How Empathy Can Build Better Workplace Relationships
Editor's note: This is a guest post by Mike Ambassador Bruny.
There is an interesting dynamic that can exist between leaders and those they lead. Many employees complain about their leaders, and many leaders complain about their employees. Having been in both roles and received training in various leadership and management programs, I wanted to provide some insights into things I’ve seen and experienced in hopes that leaders get more out of their employees and employees get more out of the work they do.
In 2006, I was an Operations Manager (OM) for Intel. I was new to people management when I walked into a room with a group of other high potential young professionals of color for a program by The Partnership, Inc. in Boston, Massachusetts. We were divided into several subgroups for an exercise. Most of the subgroups were instructed to take off their shoes while a select few were allowed to keep theirs on. The instructions were designed to represent what it felt like to work in different roles inside an organization. There were workers, creatives, managers, and leaders. Each of us were given instructions specific to the group and role we belonged to.
Managers were given the difficult task of trying to fulfill demands from the workers and leaders simultaneously. Ultimately, they made decisions that would be seen as a benefit to either the workers or the leaders. The people playing the manager role left the exercise feeling the pressure of that managerial role in an organization.
When we debriefed it was amazing to see how the participants in the program had really taken the exercise seriously. They even provided scathing complaints about each other. I left with two key lessons:
The role you inhabit in an organization and how you are treated has a big impact on how you behave. The most seasoned professional who is treated poorly can easily become less professional and seen as a problem child.
Managers are in the middle and accountable to two masters: their leaders and their employees. They have to balance how they communicate and translate messages from the top and from the bottom.
That experience shaped my perspective as a manager and caused me to focus on people and their environment and less on their formal titles. (It’s also why, moving forward, I'll refer to managers as leaders. They lead their team and have to make decisions all day long as they manage stakeholders.) My experience opened my eyes to the opportunity for increased empathy on the part of both leaders and employees in the workplace, too. Employees and leaders want to feel seen, which has less to do with the eyes and more to do with the heart — You feel me?
Your Employees Want to Be Seen
As a leader you are accountable for how your team functions. On some days it feels like everyone is in sync with you. On other days it feels like everyone on your team is against you. You sometimes have to make tough calls and deal with many situations where you can only share some of the information with your team. However, there is a good chance you can probably share more information or share limited information in a way that makes your team feel like they are part of the process and not that things are just happening to them.
At the end of the day, you are expected to serve as an example for your team. You don’t have to like your team but you do have to do what it takes to help them be successful. Below are a few tips that can help you develop empathy and have better relationships with the individuals on the teams you lead:
Motivate your employees: The golden rule is cool, but the platinum rule is better. Treat people the way they would like to be treated. I learned this rule the hard way when I tried to motivate my employees by telling them, “I don’t think you can do it.” The only thing I actually motivated them to do was talk to Human Resources. As a former athlete, the challenge of not being able to do something motivated me. That wasn’t the case for the people I was working with.
Invite different opinions: If your people see things differently than you and are willing to express their opinions, that is a good thing. Embrace it! Problems arise in environments where people feel like they cannot openly have a different opinion. They become apathetic and disengage. One thing that can help employees feel like they are being heard is using a consultative decision-making style. With decision making, there is consensus and authoritarian. Between the two is consultative. It means seeking input from those who will be impacted by your decisions as a manager. It also involves letting employees know upfront that you will take in thoughts from different people but will make the final decision, which may not look like any of the inputs provided.
Acknowledge change in behavior or performance: Whether your employee’s performance has increased or decreased, let them know you see them and are there for them. If the performance or behavior is positive, recognize it the way that the employee prefers to be recognized. If the performance or behavior is negative, you may want to acknowledge it right away or keep an eye out for a trend. Either way, you want your people to feel that you care enough to engage with them.
Leaders Want to Be Seen, Too
As an employee it doesn’t take much to garner an us (employees) against them (leadership) mentality. Things are sometimes ambiguous. Leaders cannot necessarily share everything they know about a situation for a number of reasons. That can create a feeling of “I know they are hiding something.” It is easy to forget that the “leadership” is made up of individuals who are trying to do the best job they can, for the company and for the employees. Below are a few tips employees can use to be more empathetic toward the leadership and start getting more out of the work they do:
Your leaders are human: Leaders have names that do not include the word “manager or Senior XYZ” in them. Get to know your leaders as humans and understand that they are sometimes going to make decisions you will not like. I can’t tell you the number of times that my team would talk about “leadership” and I would have to say, “Hi, my name is Mike, not leadership. I am part of the collective but also an individual.”
Get to know your organization: How does your company make money? Who do they serve? Where do they want to go in the next 5-10 years? Who can you have coffee with that can help you answer some of those questions about your company? The answers to those questions are the foundation for having a better conversation with your manager and leaders about the kind of projects you can take on that will help the company and your leaders move goals forward.
Know what you want from your work experience: What are you working on? More importantly, what are you working towards (in work and in life)? How does the way you spend your time at work help you move closer to those goals? The answer may just be, “It helps me to feed my family,” and that is ok, but be clear on that fact.
Make requests: Ask for projects and development opportunities based on your answers to the questions above. Align what you want with what your organization wants and ask in a way that shows you care about the organization.
Leaders and employees need to get to know each other, develop empathy for one another, and keep communicating. It isn’t just up to the leaders. It’s up to all of us, working together for the good of each other and the good of the company. (Tweet this.) The following questions can help with that. Use them to get to know leaders and employees at a deeper level:
What would you do if time and money wasn’t an issue?
Who is someone you admire or see as a role model and why?
When you do something awesome, how do you prefer to be recognized?
How do you like to work with your manager?
When things are not going well, what do you do to get back on track? Can you give me an example?
How do you build a healthy company? Do you think empathy is an important quality in the workplace? Why or why not?