I read with interest about a recent study from the Center for Creative Leadership which found that managers who show empathy are seen by their own bosses as better performers. Why? Because empathy actually works.
As opposed to sympathy, where you simply feel sorry for another's troubles, empathy involves actively listening and understanding what your employee is going through. You demonstrate empathetic leadership by making others feel that you hear them and appreciate where they're coming from.
The same study found that more than half of managers are ineffective at building relationships with employees. Don't be that person. Not only is it bad for business, it's just not as much fun to isolate yourself.
So here's what you need to do to be a better, more empathetic, more successful leader.
1. Listen actively.
"Active listening" means setting all distractions aside and putting your whole self into the conversation. And it also means you could literally put yourself into the other person's shoes. Well, almost literally. Suppose you have employees who work at a ticket counter. Go spend a few hours there, taking tickets. That's how you understand what they're responsible for, what brings them joy, and what drives them crazy. Next time you have a check-in meeting with that person, you will already be speaking the same language.
2. Listen non-judgmentally.
Empathy doesn't mean you agree; it means you understand. So, for instance, if Marlon from the IT department is stomping around acting frustrated about a tech issue, the solution is not to show you "get it" by stomping around, too--thereby adding to the level of stress in the workplace and making you look ineffective. It means that you give the matter your full (but unbiased) attention, coach Marlon in getting a handle on his feelings, and help him problem-solve his way to a better solution to the problem.
3. Do your share of talking, too.
Tell your own story when it moves the conversation forward; it will build trust. That doesn't give you carte blanche to change the subject to You, You, You. It means that one way you build trust with employees (or, really, with anyone) is to be a little vulnerable yourself. Think how much you could help the junior account manager who just screwed up in some minor way if you told her a story about a similar mess-up that you did once. The pressure starts lessening and she stops kicking herself. Now think about how much you are demonstrating good leadership if you roll up your sleeves and just non-judgmentally help her fix it, then give her a high-five.
4. Make empathy a management goal.
Teach everyone else the skills of active listening, literally putting themselves in others' places, and being kind and non-judgmental. Spreading the gospel of empathy means you don't just fix a problem and forget it. You turn the entire situation into a tool that helps everyone communicate and improve. Like any tool, you've got to take it out and sharpen it from time to time and keep in practice with using it. Don't wait until there's a crisis.