Let’s talk about empathy for a minute: it’s one of those “soft skills” we’re always pretty quick to dismiss. Sure, it’s vital if you’re a doctor, social worker or school teacher. But for everyone else it’s just a “nice-to-have,” not a necessity, right?
It’s definitely not on your radar if you’re say an engineer or a tech expert.
Only how many times have you locked horns with someone in a meeting? How many awkward colleagues, clients, or collaborators have you come across that seem intent on making your job harder than it needs to be?
And how many times have you thought, “man, I should’ve handled that better”?
Well, the chances are that, in every one of these scenarios you’ve been missing two things that could have smoothed things over. Empathy…and donuts!
Empathy in engineering.
My first civilian job after leaving the military was working for the City of Hayward. Now, if you’ve ever tried to have plans approved for something development or infrastructure related, you’ll know that it’s usually a case of one step forward, six steps back…on a good day!
And if you have the misfortune to get on the wrong side of the paperwork people, then forget it. Your plans will be caught up in red tape forevermore. You’ll also know that — at times — it can be almost impossible NOT to get on the wrong side of these people.
Luckily for me, my boss at the time, Ron Gushue, (Land Development Department Lead) was the very epitome of an empathetic leader who always managed to bridge the gap between the public and the City staff. I’d watch him in meetings, mediating during endless arguments between developers and City staffers. By the meeting’s end, without fail, Ron had managed to strike a compromise. Everyone would leave feeling like they understood each other and may even have come out the other side as friends.
So how did he do it?
Without a doubt, it was all down to empathy.
Rather than going to these meetings with an adversarial mindset, Ron and my team made it a point of always to have in-person meetings — and we always brought donuts. We spent time with the developer, their engineer, and City staff and talked with them over donuts and coffee. But more importantly, we listened to them. We made it really clear that we were there to work with them, and that if anything came up squirrely in their proposals, to let us know right away so that we could fix it.
The whole approach was different because it was based in empathy — which made it possible for both our departments to come at the approvals process as allies instead of adversaries. And it worked! Our team had a reputation for being able to get things through without too many arguments, and for doing what we said we were going to do.
It was a win-win all around. And we couldn’t have done it without following Ron’s lead.
Why is empathy so effective in business?
Think about every argument you’ve ever had, every meeting that has gone badly. I guarantee the reason you (and your adversaries!) felt so bad is that you didn’t feel understood. You felt that no one was listening to you, and if they were listening, they weren’t making any effort to see things from your point of view.
Empathy is the ultimate antidote to that.
At its core, it’s about making the choice to listen to others, see their views, and understand their predicaments or problems with compassion and heart. It’s about choosing to engage with people in a particular way. Even if you can’t give people what they need, you can make them feel seen and heard and in many cases, that’s enough to stop small problems escalating into something unmanageable.
It can be enough to turn a potential adversary into an ally.
Empathy comes more naturally to some than others but anyone can develop it. You just have to make the conscious choice to lead with understanding and compassion — and you can start with a few simple steps.
Being a good, engaged listener is one of the best skills you can develop. People who are good listeners don’t just hear what you’re saying, they truly take it in, consider it, and “listen between the lines” also hearing what you’re not saying. Good leaders listen with their ears, their eyes, their bodies, and their minds.
Offer supportive words — and actions.
A good leader has their followers’ backs, and does what they can to support them both with words and actions. Sometimes a positive word of encouragement is enough. In fact, one study found that just 20% of employees would prefer a raise over getting recognition for their efforts. Obviously this means 80% would rather get praise! So if you’ve been dropping the ball when it comes to communication, take this as a lesson.
Of course, words are just words if you don’t back them up with actions, so make sure that you’re doing what you can to support your employees that way too. Step in when you’re needed, do what you can, and trust them to do the rest.
Work on your positive mindset and good character.
A large element of empathy is trust and loyalty, and you can’t have trust and loyalty without good character. This goes right back to the heart of leadership: good character. Empathy is just one of the many ways that your good character plays out. Empathy can be a little different for people in the business world; you need to prove you have good character and you can back it up.
Don’t pay lip-service.
There’s nothing worse than someone who pretends to be empathetic just to further their own needs. There’s no point in trying to cultivate empathy if you’re not going to be honest and trustworthy. And there’s a big difference between being truly empathetic and just mimicking the behaviors of empathy.
You can pretend to listen all you want, you can ask questions, and you can put on your most caring face, but you can’t fake true empathy. You might be able to pull it off for a little while, but eventually your behaviors will “out you” and you’ll lose any trust, loyalty, and reputation you’ve cultivated.
While empathy does take a little effort, it’s well worth it. Whatever industry you’re in, you’ll always face “us vs. them” type clashes and times when you need to find a way to bridge the gap. And empathy is the only way you’ll do that. But once you do, you’ll find that you’ve turned adversaries into allies and opened doors that would otherwise remain closed to you. More than a “nice-to-have”, empathy can be the ultimate problem solver, helping you develop deep loyalty and trust in your staff.
And yes, adding a few donuts to the mix never hurts either.
Al Schauer is the Founder of PointNorth Consulting. He offers coaching and mentoring to aspiring leaders committed to leading with character. His new book on values and doing the right thing in leadership will be available soon. Sign up here to receive updates on how you can purchase his book.