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Don't Be So Soft
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Don’t Be So Soft

Recently, one of us saw a bumper sticker that caught our attention. It read, “I’m not good at empathy. Will you settle for sarcasm?”

Can you relate?

Empathy is a topic that invites skepticism, especially when work is involved. Empathy just sounds so soft, almost like a topic reserved for a more personal relationship. As a leader once told David, “If I brought up the topic of empathy to our leadership team as an area that we need to focus training around, at best they would give me blank stares, at worst they might start cracking jokes that I had gone soft and privately start to question my ability to stay grounded amid the hard decisions that we sometimes face as leaders.” In other words, empathy can be viewed as too “touchy-feely” to be considered an essential skill for the workplace.

While empathy might be a soft skill, it’s a hard currency to be a successful leader. Empathy allows us to create bonds of trust. It gives us insights into what others may be thinking or feeling. Empathy helps us understand how or why others are reacting to situations. It sharpens our “people smarts” and informs our decisions. Numerous studies link empathy to business results, including those that correlate it with increased sales and enhanced performance in an increasingly diverse workforce.

Empathy is incredibly critical to leadership development in this era of mobile, independent, and highly marketable workers. In a popular Harvard Business Review article entitled “What Makes a Leader?,” Dr. Daniel Goleman identifies three reasons why empathy is so important: (1) the growing use of teams, which he calls “cauldrons of bubbling emotions,” (2) the accelerated pace of globalization with cross-cultural communication commonly leading to misunderstandings, (3) and the growing arms race to keep talent. “Leaders with empathy,” states Goleman, “do more than sympathize with people around them: they use their knowledge to improve their companies in subtle but important ways.” These leaders won’t always agree with everyone’s opinion or try to please everyone. Instead, they “thoughtfully consider employees’ feelings – along with other factors – in the process of making intelligent decisions.”

Empathy, then, is a skill that is well worth cultivating. It’s a soft, often abstract tool in a leader’s toolkit that can lead to hard, real results. But where does empathy come from? Is it a process of thought or emotion? From our perspective, we believe that it is both: we need to use our reasoning ability to understand another person’s motives, concerns, thoughts, feelings, and reactions. This implies making an effort to stop and think for a moment about the other person’s perspective to understand where they are coming from. And then we need the emotional ability to care for that person’s concerns. Caring does not mean that we will always agree with others or change our position after listening. It means that we will be in tune with what is going on with others so that we can respond in a way that acknowledges their thoughts, feelings, or concerns.

This leads us to a question that we are sometimes asked, “Can someone be taught to be more empathetic?” We all know people who are naturally and consistently empathetic. We also know some people who are not; empathy just doesn’t come naturally to all of us. Still, we firmly believe that we can develop this capacity.

Here are a few practical tips that all of us can apply to improve our skill of empathy:

  1. Improve your sense of curiosity. What can you learn from a coworker who is “inexperienced”? What about one who you view as “narrow”? Curious people ask lots of questions, leading them to develop a stronger understanding of the people around them. Bring three or four considered, even provocative questions to every conversation you have with coworkers or clients.
  2. Expand yourself. New experiences can push us outside our comfort zone. Try to learn a new skill, such as playing an instrument, picking up a new hobby, or learning a foreign language. Develop a new professional competency or take a trip to a place with a culture different from your own. Doing things like this tends to humble us, and humility can be important to developing empathy.
  3. Get feedback. Ask for feedback about your relationship skills from family, friends, and colleagues, and then check in with them periodically to see how you’re doing.
  4. Explore your biases. We all have biases that impact our ability to listen and empathize; sometimes these biases are hidden, other times not-so-much. These biases are often centered around factors such as gender, age, and race. Don’t think you have any biases? Think again—we all do. The critical question is, how are your biases impacting your leadership?

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Final Thought: Empathy is a thinking and emotional muscle. The more you use it, the stronger it will get.

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