Honestly, I haven’t been writing much because I haven’t been reading much, so I’m a little rusty. You know the saying – garbage in = garbage out? Marathon watching the Real Housewives of Salt Lake City and the newest version of Gossip Girl doesn’t do much to stimulate the creative part of my brain, but it does allow me to disconnect and ignore the state of *gestures vaguely around* everything.
Today is different though, today I’ve been reading and in the book I’m reading there’s a whole chapter about engaging your empathy and how important empathy is in building and maintaining relationships. Empathy isn’t a strong suit of mine (even though I recently asked a few of my closest friends how they would describe me and one of them in particular said empathetic – I’m still stunned), but I do recognize that it is an important skill we could all use.
This chapter on empathy made me do a double take because we see a lot of leaders and a lot of talking heads pushing empathy as the missing ingredient in the workplace right now. While I fully disagree with the idea that just empathy can solve all of our issues at work, I guess I can admit that maybe empathy could actually help us build a better workplace. The challenge is how can leaders show empathy when they seem to be so out of touch their employees? As an example, Karen Eber recently shared the tweet below reminding leaders it’s not always a great idea to invite employees to your home (which led me to recapping my last experience with that specific type of disaster). One thing that still sticks out to me from my experience with that is the boss who invited us over seemed to be completely oblivious to our discomfort and lack of commonalities in even our lifestyles – it felt very out of touch.
Or how about the time as a young (first time manager) I was lectured by the President of the company for cursing at work in front of my employees when it was absolutely nothing for him to sling a “GD” or other four-letter word in a conversation with me. What he failed to recognize while he lectured my early 20 something year old self (with no management training whatsoever) is that I was filtering my actions through what I saw in my own leadership. If he had taken that opportunity to say something along the lines of “I’m sorry that I’ve made you feel comfortable swearing in front of your team. We’ve had a complaint that it makes someone on your team uncomfortable and we need you to not use that language at work and honestly I don’t need to use that language at work either” then he could’ve used empathy as a training tool. Instead, he treated me like I should know he can do it, but I cannot.
In that type of example I believe leaders tend not to apologize when they’ve misbehaved or made the wrong decision because they don’t want it to be used against them in litigation, but there are other ways to practice empathy from a leadership perspective. How much more trust could a leader build with you if they were honest about some of their own shortcomings? As HR professionals I think we can help our leadership identify opportunities to use empathy & build trust in an appropriate way.
I once worked for a leader who made the wrong call on a termination. As the HR Manager, I and the Program Manager did everything we could to fight it. The more logical our points were, the angrier the CEO got. He wanted us to clearly know it was his way or the highway – in those exact words, screamed at a level no one had screamed at me since I was like 5 and about to touch a hot stove. We carried out the CEOs instructions and as predicted by the PM and myself, all hell broke loose. The customer was upset, the team was upset, I now had to offboard this employee who was utterly devastated and simultaneously create a compelling req and get to work on their backfill, while tending to the pile of tasks that already had me stretched thin as a department of one (who was also contributing to many other back office and customer facing functions that had nothing to do with HR). At no point did this CEO acknowledge the stress and anxiety he had added to our plates by making the wrong call. I like to believe he knew deep down that it was the wrong decision but he didn’t want to admit that to us – he had to exert power over us & he felt that admitting he overreacted would lessen that power. It was quite the opposite though. Had he come back to me and the PM after all hell broke loose from the decision and said something along the lines of how that didn’t go like he had envisioned or that maybe he could see why we were frustrated we would’ve at least felt seen. Instead, we came to dread every meeting we had with him or with the customer for the next several months (until I left – I’ve also learned that the PM in this story is now working somewhere else too – good for him). At no point in this brutal process did this CEO activate empathy to consider what we were experiencing or needed in the moments of the aftermath of this decision, he only became more aggressive.
When employees see leaders make a bad decision and the leader never acknowledges the dysfunction or extra work it created, employees will remember that and quite frankly, its going to leave a bad taste in their mouth. A simple “I made the wrong decision” or “I understand why you think I made the wrong decision” might go a long way. Maybe its something less drastic than the example above and saying something like this could go be appropriate: “I see now that we could’ve reached our goal faster had I done x, y, or z and saved the team a lot of time and stress.”
It can be hard to remember the perspective you had as an less experienced employee and weave those concerns or questions into your day-to-day management, but if you take the time to learn what your employees are stressed about/concerned/not fully understanding at work and address those things in an empathetic way you’ll be a better leader and generally – a better human. All of your employees won’t need this from you, but the chances that you’ve created an entire team of people who don’t need a glimmer of empathy are very low so my bet is that it won’t hurt your chances of retention if you go ahead and activate your empathy muscle.