Over the past few months, we have read a great deal about the importance of empathy as a crucial leadership competency. Here's one take, by Ruth Gotian on Forbes.com:
A pandemic brings out fears, frustrations and anxiety and many of us are feeling tired, unmotivated and incapable of focusing. As I previously reported for Forbes, this is the time to connect and empathize with our colleagues. One such way of doing so is with a ‘check in’ conversation. This chat is not about catching up on work related tasks, rather, to see how the members of your team are doing, really doing. The chats can be by any medium you have available including phone, text, Slack and Zoom.
What is critical, AJ Duffy, Learning and Development Director, Corporate Groups at Microsoft explains, is to “Listen with intent. Don’t just ask ‘How are you doing?’ Ask and then hear them. Pause longer to allow all thoughts to come out. Sometimes people just want to be heard and not given advice.” Duffy encourages listening for specifics. “If a colleague or direct report says something specific about a family member or friend, next time you speak, check back in with them about that specific person.” Most importantly, Duffy explains is to model the behavior. If a manager or peers sees you doing this, it will get noticed and others will follow your lead.
I know some leaders struggle with the concept of empathy though. They understand its value and would like to improve their skills in this area. However, they also do not want to sacrifice their ability to challenge their people, hold them to high standards, and push them to achieve what they might not consider possible. These conversations suggest to me that leaders often think that empathizing and setting a high bar are somehow mutually exclusive. That view is misguided, in my opinion. I think about what the best teachers do. They clearly care a great deal about their students. They seek to understand their interests, goals, perspectives, and struggles. However, they also set a high bar, and they challenge students to achieve more than they ever could imagine. One need not sacrifice one to achieve the other. However, it is a delicate balancing act. What I've found as a teacher, though, is that they will respond to your challenges if they know you care. If they believe you have their best interests at heart, they will run through walls for you.