In the business world, we tend to have short-term memories. We look back on 2020 as if it were a decade ago. But in reality, little time has transpired since we had to grapple with a global pandemic, move most employees to remote roles, and learn an unexpected new skill — making connections with a workforce you don’t see in person.
Organizations took the fast track to a world dominated by remote technology, which meant that business leaders had to make a more concerted effort to be “human.” COVID had a personal dimension that affected people in so many different ways. The pure uncertainty of the spread of the disease and the need to navigate the unknown was daunting. People were scared, confused, hungry for information and uncertain about how the pandemic would interrupt their lives.
No one had the answers, of course, but lending an empathetic ear and facing these challenges together somehow made the world a little safer and more manageable. Responsive leaders were able to share the latest news, knowledge and information that was being provided by public health officials, but nothing seemed as effective as sitting with staff and listening to their fears and concerns.
Empathy is one of the most important traits a business leader should develop, and one which will invariably lead to a happier and more inspired workforce — which, in turn, leads to a more successful business. Here are three lessons on empathy that can help you in leading your business:
1. Never stop listening: People don’t care how much you know until they know how much you care. As a result, almost everything I do is based on listening. Active listening is a learned trait, and a shift from what we typically rely on for success when we start out in the business world. Effectively leading in today’s ultra-complex environment requires leaders to gain a deep understanding of the personal and professional issues confronting their employees. Empathy will be a required and critical competency for the next generation of leaders. Leaders who set the tone for empathy and establish practices that support psychological safety will be better-positioned to address the complexities of today’s workforce.
For example, I make it a point to understand the personal milestones and challenges that those on my team are experiencing, both on a personal and professional basis. I try and create a safe space for team members to share with me the things that are most important in their lives. Everyone has a personal struggle or milestone. On my team alone there are individuals who are struggling with the challenges of aging parents, or the difficulties of finding affordable housing or childcare, or going through an emotional life change.
While I avoid offering advice about any of these situations, I make it a point to proactively check in. Offering a few moments of empathy along the way to my team members provides them with some level of comfort, and they’re grateful for the opportunity to share their current emotional well-being and situations. I really do care about them, and an empathetic moment allows me to build deep levels of trust across the team. Trust, of course, is the cornerstone of a high-performing team, resulting in retention and extraordinary commitment.
2. Ask the right questions — and mean it: Questions are often marks of effective leadership, but they need to be meaningful. In one-on-one meetings with employees, I am genuinely interested in the stories they want to tell. It’s not just a series of “uh-huhs” as responses. They’ll share with me and I’ll reply, “Tell me more,” or “How does that impact your life?” Rather than a technique, this must be a genuine display of interest — because while it might not be the most important call of your day, it might be the most important call of their day. Keep in mind, it’s better to be interested than to be interesting.
3. Set boundaries to extend your emotional bandwidth: It’s practically impossible to give empathetically all the time. Spreading yourself too thin hinders the help you can give your employees. You need to ensure you are placing limits on the amount of time and energy you give. Whenever I feel my energy waning, I allow myself several minutes to take a walk or listen to music. Once I’m recharged and set a 30-minute meeting with an employee, I make sure to keep it to the allotted 30 minutes — out of respect for both their time and mine. People are more likely to invest in relationships where limits are respected.
Self-empathy is important in order to have enough emotional bandwidth to share with employees. It’s just as important to know your employees’ limits and preferred boundaries. Its also crucial to understand that no two employees are alike, and so delivering empathetic leadership cannot be formulaic. Empathy to one employee may look entirely different to another employee. It’s also important not to force employees to share; simply give them a safe space to share if they choose.
For example, I have one team member who opens every conversation with me with an update on a range of personal struggles. It usually lasts only five minutes, but it’s important for this person to share this with me. Conversely, another team member rarely shares personal or professional struggles, but when those moments happen, the conversation is much longer, deeper and richer.
Empathetic and vulnerable leaders find that the personal connections they create with their teams yield several organizational benefits including enhanced loyalty, commitment and retention. This leads to increased innovation and productivity, while protecting against employee burnout.
The best part about being a leader is building authentic connections with your team, so don’t miss these opportunities. People aren’t remembered as much for being smart as they are for being empathetic. Be an activist in the lives of others. When you can empathetically help someone else in their journey, don’t hold back.
Scott Nostaja is the national organizational effectiveness practice leader and senior vice president at Segal, the HR and employee benefits consulting firm.