It’s crucial for leaders to be empathetic and able to understand the needs, thoughts, feelings, and wants of the people they work with.
Everyone has had experience with a bad manager. Perhaps it was someone who was strong at executing the skills of a job and was promoted based on that, but who lacks the people skills necessary to be a leader.
Empathy is a major component of competent, effective management and leadership and we know why. It’s absolutely essential for leaders to be able to understand the needs, thoughts, feelings, and wants of the people they’re responsible for not only managing but developing. Plus, the Center for Creative Leadership found that empathy is positively related to job performance.
While the importance of empathy in the workplace is undeniable, there’s a tricky part to the equation: How do you actually go about cultivating empathy in the workplace? Even though it can be easier to teach hard skills than soft skills, there are still a handful of ways that you can help your managers and employees at large be more empathetic. Here’s how to cultivate empathy in the workplace.
Open up communication
The only way to understand the perspective of other people — the cornerstone of empathy — is to ask about it and really hear it. Empathy in the workplace is all about understanding things from the perspective of your subordinates or colleagues. Doing this helps you understand where they’re coming from and what’s going on in their worlds. This kind of deep understanding and ability to put yourself in someone else’s shoes is the foundation on which empathy is built.
If you’re realizing that you don’t have as much information about the people around you as you’d like, it’s time to find out! Ask coworkers to get coffee with you. Check in with the people on your team about what’s going on in their lives as individuals when you have one on ones. The key is to create and develop an open channel of communication so that when something comes up, people feel comfortable sharing with you. That way you have the insight that’s necessary to extend empathy when your colleagues need it.
Empathy in the workplace is all about understanding things from the perspective of your subordinates or colleagues. Doing this helps you understand where they’re coming from and what’s going on in their worlds.
Be honest, approachable, and accessible
The key to open and honest communication — especially if you’re a manager — is to be honest, approachable, and accessible. It’s ideal that your team members feel comfortable coming to you when something comes up. You don’t want them to avoid the process of bringing it up all together.
But you can be as approachable as possible, but if you’re not accessible (aka never in the office and don’t have a good system in place for staying in touch with your subordinates remotely), all of that effort goes out the window.
Finally, be honest. Be upfront when you make mistakes and work to fix them. If you hurt someone with your words or actions, apologize. This is a central way to demonstrate empathy rather than just talk about it. You’re acknowledging when you’ve done wrong by others — and modeling the ownership and insight into how actions impact others that you’d like to see from your subordinates or colleagues.
Refine the ways that you handle conflict in the workplace
Conflict is a great opportunity to exercise and extend empathy to others. Even if it seems like someone is so far in the wrong that there couldn’t possibly be an excuse for their behavior (think blowing off a major meeting), begin by giving them the benefit of the doubt.
Ask open-ended questions to try to get at the heart of what’s really going on. Are they having personal crises at home? Have they been overworked and are so burnt out that they’re starting to fall short of their job responsibilities as a result?
Whenever there’s an interpersonal issue to deal with, come at it with an empathetic approach. This doesn’t mean giving excuses to problematic behavior, but it does mean working to understand what’s really going on with them as an employee and as a human. It’s also important to be kind in the process.
Haven’t we all been there when we’ve had stuff going on that gets in the way of work but we don’t feel like we can talk about it? So we just charge ahead and hope for the best, but likely fall short along the way. Isn’t it nice when someone asks if you’re burnt out rather than accuses you of being lazy right off the bat?
Make soft skills just as important as hard skills when it comes to leadership proficiency
One major way to cultivate empathy in the workplace is to value soft skills like empathy just as much as hard skills when it comes to everything from job performance to promotions.
It will likely be difficult to cultivate empathy in the workplace if people don’t consider it a valuable skill. Especially when considering promotions into management and other leadership positions, soft people skills like empathy should be a clear element of what determines proficiency and promotion readiness. This sends a clear message to everyone that soft skills matter. It’ll help avoid the trap of simply promoting people who are good at their job but terrible at managing and developing people.