Building Bridges for Empathy: Key Considerations for Leaders
Empathy is the ability to understand what other people feel, see things from their point of view, and imagine yourself in their place. That understanding helps us to better decide how to respond to a situation.
Starting at the top
Leaders of a company, and of people, bear tremendous responsibility. This responsibility causes stress and sleepless nights. Leaders have deep and profound concerns about accountability to board members, customers, shareholders, and employees, not to mention the pressures of trying to have a personal life with family and friends. The pressures increase as they work to be profitable and yet must spend money to be innovative and stay ahead of the competition. They have the ever- present given that the buck stops with them. If something goes wrong, it’s ultimately their fault.
Being the person at the top is both exhilarating and exhausting, which explains why so many people do not want to be the person “in charge.” It is hard. Really, really hard.
Every person on a leader’s team needs to understand the stresses the leader is under and the very real ways that staff supports the vision and mission. The most successful leaders use their voice and their platform to share transparently about what keeps them up at night and how the team can help make the ship sail more smoothly. Vulnerability and the truth work.
Empathy is the key to the hit TV show Undercover Boss, in which CEOs go undercover in their own companies to discover what it is re- ally like working there. The show confirms what I have learned from my own work around the world—staffers truly want their leaders to see the work they do.
Have empathy for what you cannot see. Why? Because you just never know . . .
Our workplace is filled with complicated, talented humans who are handling all kinds of health and personal issues that may be invisible to the rest of us but impact their work lives in a variety of ways. These people are managing the best they can. Please consider the following real-life examples and then think about people you know:
- The colleague who is prone to sudden and unpredictable migraine headaches. When she gets one, she needs to go into a dark room and close her eyes.
- The colleague who lost a lot of weight recently. When asked about it, he said he is seeing a doctor because he cannot swallow. When he goes out for a business lunch, he pretends to eat and takes the entrée home with him. It takes him hours to eat anything.
- The colleague who gained a lot of weight recently. When the group conversation turned to what everyone is doing to get exercise, she shared matter-of-factly that she is on steroids as part of her breast cancer treatment and she is looking forward to working out again when the treatments are over.
- The colleague who seems to be the picture of health, yet shared that she has developed a Baker’s cyst behind her knee that is painful and prevents movement. It may take many months to go away.
- The colleague who is usually extroverted and is now sad, depressed, and short-tempered. They are handling a drug-addicted child who attempted suicide.
It’s time for fewer quick judgments and more empathy.
Stanford Graduate School of Business—“touchy-feely” course
It did not surprise me when I read about the tremendously popular elective class taught at Stanford officially called “Interpersonal Dynamics.” A team of professors has been teaching this class to MBA students since 1974. The goal of the class is to give students a way to understand the “core motivations and feelings of others whenever there is conflict or tension.”4 The class promotes the benefits of being in touch with your own feelings and having a heightened awareness about the feelings of others. Former students report that the emotional intelligence strategies they learned in this class give them “a competitive edge in business.” The course promotes self-awareness and explores what it means to take on emotional discomfort with curiosity and vulnerability.
This kind of content is important for business students at every level—undergraduate and graduate students—to learn and practice. As long as our workplace is populated by human beings, leaders must make it their business to know what makes people tick and how to handle difficult conversations. After all, humans have emotions and feelings that, when pushed under the rug rather than embraced, can manifest in dangerous and counterproductive behaviors. Stanford sees the value in exploring these emotions using the students themselves as living, breathing examples. Brilliant.
Questions leaders can ask to build bridges of empathy:
- Where did you grow up?
- What do you do in your spare time?
- How did you get into your career?
- What do you love about your work?
Let’s take a walk in the shoes of others and, in so doing, gain a relatable understanding about what life is like for them every single day. Seek to understand rather than to be understood. That is empathy.
Excerpted from Staff Matters: People-Focused Solutions for the Ultimate New Workplace (Ultimate Workplace Press; February 28, 2023) by Bonnie Low-Kramen.
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