Empathy: The Basic Quality Many Leaders Keep Getting Wrong

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(Inc. article) Empathy and sympathy are closely related, but how are they different? Knowing the answer can help you develop the quality that everybody needs.

Ever wonder why some managers just can’t get along with their teams? Or have you seen a boss who’s lost touch with reality?

Maybe you’re the leader, and you’ve noticed a slow-but-sure disconnect from your team. What can you do about it?

You’ve heard the advice time and again: Learn to show more empathy.

Empathy is considered by many to be a basic human quality. So why is it often still missing in our day-to-day work?

Many persons confuse empathy with its closely related cousin sympathy. The two qualities are definitely related, but the key to demonstrating empathy is knowing the difference.

According to Merriam-Webster, empathy is “the feeling that you understand and share another person’s feelings and emotions.”

Whereas sympathy involves feeling sorry for someone, empathy requires us to go a step further, and it lasts longer. Here’s an example:

Imagine a colleague goes through a difficult situation; let’s say he loses a close family member in an accident. We naturally feel sympathy for him. We may even write a card or express those feelings somehow. For the most part, though, we move on with our lives.

But when we show empathy, we take more time–time to remember how we felt when we lost someone close to us (or how we would feel, if we haven’t had this experience). We think about how this affected our work, our relationships with others.

Even further, we try to imagine specifically how our colleague feels in this situation. We recognize that he (like every individual) will deal with the trauma in his own unique way.

Empathy has been described as “your pain in my heart.”

The problem is, despite the fact that we crave for others to try fitting into our shoes, we’re often not ready to do the same for them. We see this every day: from broken marriages and strained parent-child relationships to deteriorating communication in the workplace. (Author Mike Robbins illustrates this perfectly here.)

If a leader can demonstrate true empathy to individual team members, it will go a long way in encouraging them to perform at their best.

It may even inspire the team to show empathy for the leader.

That’s right–empathy begets empathy.

So how do you get your company leaders–and employees–to be more empathetic?

  • If you’re a manager, the next time an employee comes to you with a problem or complaint, resist the ‘Not again. What now?’ attitude. Try to remember: You once had a similar problem. If not, someone you respect did. Ask yourself: Why does this person feel this way? What can I do to make the situation better?
  • If a specific task or process is causing problems, try to work alongside a disgruntled team member, to better understand the person’s point of view. Showing empathy in this way takes time, but you will often motivate the one(s) you are trying to help. Not to mention the benefits this will bring to your working relationship.
  • If you are an employee who feels your manager is being especially unreasonable, try to understand why. Maybe the manager is dealing with extreme pressure of his or her own, or maybe there’s a problem at home, or maybe…you get the drift.

Simply put, empathy starts with giving others the benefit of the doubt.

Some years ago, I learned the value of showing empathy firsthand. I had been working a number of years for the same organization, and was now engaged to my fiance from Germany. As we were trying to determine where to start our new life together, my office made it clear that it was reducing personnel, and my department was being reorganized. I was being considered for a new position, and my fiance and I decided that if I got it, I would remain in New York City and she would join me. If not, we would move.

I was told I would be informed of the decision within four to six weeks. Six weeks came and went. Then seven. Eight. Nine. The wedding date was getting closer, and I wasn’t sure how much longer I could take the suspense–I didn’t care anymore what happened; I just needed to know something.

After going through the normal HR channels, I decided to try something different. I wrote an email directly to Mr. Pierce–a member of the executive board who was the head of personnel (whom I had never met). Since our organization had about 6,000 staff members at the time, I wasn’t sure how he would take this: I was traveling to Germany to see my fiance in a few days, and I thought it would be great to have some news to share with her personally. (Call me a romantic. Or call me stupid–I’ve heard both.)

After over two months of anticipation, it took exactly two days after my e-mail to get a decision. I then boarded a plane to Germany, and less than 12 hours later, my fiance and I were planning our new life together–in New York City. We couldn’t have been happier.

Sadly, Mr. Pierce passed away some months ago. I’ve often wondered how many similar emails, letters, and requests he read throughout the years. A press release issued by my former agency made the following statement:

Mr. Pierce served on various committees … [and] his organizational responsibilities required that he travel extensively … Despite his workload, he was well known for never being too busy to listen to those needing assistance or advice, and he put others at ease with his warm smile and good sense of humor. His closest associates noted that people from different backgrounds or cultures were naturally drawn to him.

When Mr. Pierce read my email all those years ago, he wasn’t just reading the random request of a junior manager. He was reading my deep concerns and feelings. The problem was important to me, so it was important to him.

Mr. Pierce knew empathy. My pain in his heart.

Employer or employee, empathy makes us more flexible and compassionate. It makes us easier to work with, and in the eyes of others, it makes us more human.

So the next time you realize that the relationship you have with a colleague is not what you want, take the time to show some empathy.

It might be just what the person needs.

One day, it’ll be what you need too. ..

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