I've just ended a period of time where I mentored college students regularly, and it was a life-changing experience. It started when I realized I need to pass on what I know. All of my accumulated knowledge had built up over time and it was bursting out at the seams with people in the grocery checkout line, the gas station, and everywhere in between. (Turns out Kwik Trip employees don't care about Instagram growth strategies, who knew?)
College students, however--they soak up this stuff, and for good reason. I'm so amazed, flabbergasted even, at how insightful they can be when you give them a little encouragement. They are so hungry for practical help. At that age, the more you learn in a short period of time, the more you can excel in the workplace, and, frankly, in almost all areas of life. Better knowledge leads to better decisions in most cases.
Yet knowledge isn't everything.
One decision I made from the very beginning was to show empathy at all times. I've written about this topic many times, and even explained how I learned to show empathy. In this mentoring role, I decided to be fearless in expressing encouragement and positive feedback at all times, to constantly think about how the other person was feeling.
Up until the very end of my tenure mentoring students, I was always trying to switch perspectives from my own limited view to that of the person across the table.
A curious thing happens when you do that.
For starters, everyone knows when you're self-serving. You might as well wear a sign that says "I'm self-serving" at all times because it's not hard to pick up that vibe. You never ask anyone how they are doing, you talk about yourself constantly, you're only interested in your own success. Empathy has the opposite effect. Truly caring about someone else at work makes you stand out because it's so rare and because it's so obvious.
Here's a quick example. I remember one student who was having trouble on her volleyball team. Now, the project was suffering and we had some major issues. I was there to point out what could work better because, as I mentioned, I'm Mr. Knowledgeable. But she wasn't interested in facts or acquiring more information.
I stopped myself mid-sentence.
"What's going on with you today? You seem different."
The conversation took on a totally different bent. I was there to listen, not instruct. It's a trite saying, but it's so important to express that you care about someone by listening. Why would anyone listen to my words of advice if they think I'm there to spout off? We all know when someone just wants to impress others with their great depth of wisdom but barely knows your name or that you're struggling with a teammate on your volleyball team.
Empathy is the secret ingredient to all workplace interactions.
In terms of doing that fearlessly, it means being vulnerable enough to listen, to wait patiently for people to explain the details, to offer advice that is meant only to help and guide the other person, and to not expect anything in return. Fearless empathy is an expression of a deep desire to be genuinely helpful, not as a mere strategy (everyone will see through that) but as part of who you are as a person. When you are others-centered it means you set aside what you want and your own interests and decide to be the person who meets a need in others.
It is quite fulfilling and rewarding.
My challenge for you is to try showing fearless empathy at work and then see what happens. Managers and leaders, stop barking out commands and checking spreadsheets. Those of you in a performance-oriented role, stop trying to impress everyone with your skills and talents and start encouraging others and championing their skills.
Do this for a week. Every single day. Listen more closely, switch perspectives, show emotion and sympathy as needed. And then pay attention to what happens at work, because the change will come. Ping me if you see results.