Management 2: Empathy

In my experience, the number one trait that makes a strong corporate leader is empathy. The proverbial golden rule applies directly to management.

From m-w.com empathy is: “the action of understanding, being aware of, being sensitive to, and vicariously experiencing the feelings, thoughts, and experience of another of either the past or present without having the feelings, thoughts, and experience fully communicated in an objectively explicit manner; also : the capacity for this”

The easiest starting point with anything relating to management is “how would I feel in this situation”.  A strong leader then takes it further and asks “how would they feel in this situation”.  It’s this ability to understand and anticipate people’s frames of mind that makes an effective leader.

Note, this doesn’t mean simply reciting “I understand how you feel.  Now do it anyway”.  You have to know your employees.  You have to know what’s going on with their lives, you have to know if they’re going through rough times or good times.   You have to know not only their current state of mind, but what their short, mid and long-term goals are.  You have to help guide them to clarify their long-term goals, even if it has nothing to do with your company or their current line of work.

As an example, lets say you have an employee named Bob that’s not performing.  Here’s a dialog from a bad manager:

Bad Manager: Bob, we’re afraid you’re not working hard enough and are missing your deadlines.  Around here we take our jobs seriously and if you don’t pick it up, you’re going to be written up.

Bob: I’m sorry, I’ll get on it, it won’t happen again.

A bad manager will tighten his grip on Bob and demand higher performance under threat of consequences.  Even if this gets Bob to finish his immediate tasks, Bob will resent his boss and the manager loses long term trust.  Instead, if the manager treated Bob with dignity and had an open discussion with him to see what’s really going on, he might learn the true cause of why Bob isn’t performing.  It might take more than one conversation, but it may go something like this:

Good Manager: Hi Bob.  In looking at the schedule, it seems like you’re having trouble hitting your deadlines.  Is everything ok?

Bob: I’m sorry, I’ll get on it, it won’t happen again.

Good Manager: I’m not as concerned about the deadlines as for how you’re doing.  How do you feel?

Bob: I’m fine, well, to be honest, I’ve been having some problems with my family…

Good Manager: I’m sorry to hear that, would it help to lighten your load here for awhile to give you some space?

The good manager puts the person’s life and frame of mind above the short term business goals.  If you want happy employees, you have to know that they’re human, and will have ups and downs.  The last thing you want is to compound someone’s downs with negativity at work.  In the situation above, Bob might need a few months of low impact work to get his life together.  Chances are high that when he turns his life back around, he’ll appreciate the space and become an even stronger employee.

The conversation could take another route, such as in the following:

Good Manager: Hi Bob.  In looking at the schedule, it seems like you’re having trouble hitting your deadlines.  Is everything ok?

Bob: I’m sorry, I’ll get on it, it won’t happen again.

Good Manager: I’m not as concerned about the deadlines as for how you’re doing.  How do you feel?

Bob: I’m fine, well, to be honest, I’m having a hard time getting motivated to do these tasks, I’ve been doing this for 2 years now and I’m ready for a change.

Good Manager: That makes sense, if we could reinvent your position and you could be doing anything you wanted, what would it be?

The only way to really get an employee to open up like this is to build trust to the point where they know there aren’t going to be negative consequences to being honest.

In management, you have a responsibility to both your employees and your company.  A truly effective leader knows that without contented, satisfied employees, there is no company.  This takes continued proactive work on your part, and really embracing the true meaning of empathy.


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2 responses to “Management 2: Empathy

  1. David,
    This is great. I have been on both sides of the table, giving empathetic feedback and recieving it. I think you really captured the key “Instead, if the manager treated Bob with dignity and had an open discussion with him to see what’s really going on, he might learn the true cause of why Bob isn’t performing. ” It makes all the differance. Thanks for your thoughts.

    • Thanks Katy. I’m always trying to improve so I also appreciate feedback. It’s easier to accept when the person giving it is truly looking out for your best interest, and they’re able to explain the “why”. I think part of the problem that some run into is that it’s uncomfortable to give feedback, so they wait too long. Definitely something for a future post…

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