Empathy for your team is more important than ever.
People are juggling work and kids with life during the Covid-19 pandemic, and many of us are buckling under the pressure. An estimated 865,000 women dropped out of the workforce in September 2020 alone as they struggled with work/life balance.
Our teams need our help. They need their leaders to step up in unprecedented ways, and it's our job to deliver, even if that means stretching ourselves to new ways of leading.
Employees need to know that we understand what they're facing both at home and at work. They need a culture of high trust, where they feel safe to tell us what they need to do their jobs well -- whether that's home office equipment, an extended deadline, or more flexibility during traditional working hours.
Creating this kind of environment requires empathy, the ability to fully understand--though not necessarily agree with--another person's point of view. Empathy comes naturally to some people, but it's a skill I didn't learn until my late 30s (and I suspect many other leaders are the same). Demonstrating sincere empathy has changed the way I lead for the better.
Although empathy may seem intangible, you can learn it, just like I did. Here's how:
1. Hone your listening skills.
When we talk about leadership, we often emphasize presentation, persuasion, and public speaking, but we don't talk nearly enough about the value of listening. Listening is an untapped leadership competency--so much so that many leaders have a reputation for being terrible listeners.
But leaders can make listening one of their greatest strengths -- if they can think bigger than their own narrative. Listening empathically means listening with the intent to understand another person's situation, perspective, or point of view. It means suspending your thinking, opinions, and judgments long enough to get inside another person's head.
This is different from sympathy, because it doesn't aim to make people more dependent on you. It aims to help people feel understood, so they can clear their head enough to develop solutions and take action on their own. When my direct reports came to me with problems, I used to think my job as a leader was to jump in with solutions. After all, solving problems was how I demonstrated my value and earned my title, right? I was amazed to discover that more often than not, my team members simply needed me to listen--and then they solved their own problems. In contrast to expressing sympathy, listening empathically develops team members' independence and proactivity.
2. Get over yourself.
Imposter syndrome is real, and it's everywhere. So many of us feel like we aren't worthy of the jobs we've earned, especially when we're facing the new and unpredictable challenges of 2021. The problem is that these feelings of insecurity drive us to focus excessively on ourselves: our performance, our weaknesses, our reputation, and our status--and that's exactly the opposite of where our focus should be as leaders.
The first step in getting beyond imposter syndrome is to remember that your role as a leader is to look outward, at your team's success and development. As my colleague Todd Davis asks, "Do you want to be a great leader, or do you want your team to be led by a great leader?" When I became more forgiving of my own human imperfections, I was free to focus more on building up those around me. I developed the commitment to my team's growth and development that allowed me to truly understand where they were coming from and how I could best support them.
3. Love your people.
Loving your team means caring about each of them as individuals. This obviously isn't a romantic or familial kind of love; this is the kind of deep caring that helps you understand who a person is, what might have them off their game, or what motivates them. It makes you want the best for them and their careers. Of course, you aren't their therapist or parent, nor should you be. But you are a leader with the power to help them bring about immense positive change in their life. That could mean providing a fulfilling work environment, creating a winning and supportive team, and helping them earn promotions, more exciting opportunities, and increased compensation. You may have a far bigger impact than you realize by simply demonstrating understanding and compassion when a person may need it most. And it's hard to envision a time when we need it more.
Good people don't quit leaders who change their lives for the better. Become one of those leaders, especially now when many of our team members are struggling with immense challenges. Your professional legacy isn't your last title or annual salary. It's the community of people who are better off in life because they worked with you.