The practical application of empathy to leadership strategies is a topic that has fascinated me for a long while. Empathy is the ability to understand and feel from another person’s perspective without actually experiencing the wide range of factors that shape that perspective. Empathy helps create bridges between parties when they have opposing interests. It allows us to connect with others in a deep, human way.
For these reasons, it’s sparked interest in the business and leadership communities. Empathy allows for the success of customer-focused business practices, such as consultative selling and the development of customer loyalty. It creates paths towards cross-functional collaboration and collegial conflict resolution.
There are actions that leaders can encourage that can help their teams build their empathy, but you cannot teach empathy. You cannot force empathy as a matter of policy. The problem that many leaders face in attempting to implement empathy-based practices is that they forget that empathy isn’t a thing you “do.” It’s not a thing you can teach. It’s not a thing at all. It’s an underlying mentality. It’s an approach. It’s a way of life. All due respect to President Roosevelt, this is a type of diplomacy that has no big stick with which you can beat empathy into your subordinates (no matter how softly you speak).
So, leaders who want to build empathetic teams and business practices can start with the following five actions:
- Teach your team to ask the right questions. Asking the right questions of themselves and of the other party will begin to open the door to deeper understand of the others’ perspectives. For example, instead of “How can I convince this person to give me what I want or need,” teach them to ask the other party: “How can I help you achieve your goals?” Teach them to ask themselves, “How would I feel in the other person’s situation? What would I want or expect someone to do for me in those circumstances? What is the objective of this person and what will it cost me to help them attain it?”
- Eliminate incentives or punitive policies that encourage bad behavior. Misguided policies focused on short-term gains often take away the ability of individual employees to take the path of long-term best interest for both the company and the customers. These policies are typically implemented for the sake of volume and expediency, not on long-term relationship-building.
- Support individual coaching. Find a method to support your team in their transition to the empathetic path. Set up consistent, extended, one-on-one coaching sessions with each of your team members to discuss specific issues they are running into. Assign them to a peer buddy, either on your team or collaborate with another team. Peer buddies should meet regularly, whether it’s biweekly or monthly. This relationship is intended to foster a peer collaboration, support, and a diversity of perspectives in problem solving.
- Actively pursue diversity. I’m not talking about recruiting quotas. As a female minority, I’m telling you that there’s no magical number or formula for how many women or minorities you need in your team. Instead, actively seek out people with diverse backgrounds and experiences to build a well-rounded team, instead of a team that is heavy on technical skills but homogeneous in perspective. Exposure to greater diversity naturally increases human ability to empathize with others’ experiences that are different than theirs.
- Model appropriate behavior. Everything you do is seen by your subordinates as behavior that leads to success. You’re a role model for your team, so be careful the type of behavior you are modeling. Be empathetic with your team. Value their time and their needs. Show empathy to your customers. Attend customer meetings with your team.
You can talk to your team about empathy. You can help them to understand what it means. But ultimately, it is your individual team members who must internalize the idea of empathy. It’s up to you to help them get there.