If You Can’t Empathize with Your Employees, You’d Better Learn To

nov15-16-hbr-marion-barraud-leadership-850x478Empathy—the ability to read and understand other’s emotions, needs, and thoughts—is one of the core competencies of emotional intelligence and a critical leadership skill. It is what allows us to influence, inspire, and help people achieve their dreams and goals. Empathy enables us to connect with others in a real and meaningful way, which in turn makes us happier—and more effective—at work.

Many people mistakenly believe that empathy—like other emotional intelligence competencies—is something you’re born with or not. But it’s not that simple.

In fact, we all have the capacity for empathy. Neuroscientist V.S. Ramachandran’s studies have helped us understand that we have physical structures in our brains—called mirror neurons—that help us understand others’ experiences and feelings. When you walk into a meeting late where a heated discussion has been taking place and the hairs on your arms stand up, it’s not just that you’ve been able to read the body language in the room and recognized that a fight’s happening. Your mirror neurons are actually reflecting the feelings of the people present. You start feeling as they do—even though you just joined them and haven’t been involved in the fight.

Getting Better at Empathy

Developing empathy requires self-awareness, self-management, patience, endurance, and lots and lots of practice but you can learn it with time and dedication. It starts with having a dream—a vision of the future that means enough for you to put in the hard work needed to change old habits. And, you need to accept how important empathy is at work–and perhaps, as in Miguel’s case, the realization of the damage done by not having it.

Here are a few simple things you can begin to do:

  1. Observe, listen, and ask questions. Pay attention to people’s body language rather than obsessing about what you’re going to say next. This can be harder than it sounds, because you have to let go of the notion that you know what’s best or have the right answer. You also need to stop assuming that you know what people were thinking and feeling—you probably don’t. And even if you are right, or partly right, there’s always more to learn if you’re quiet and curious.
  2. Avoid distractions and try to be more fully present when you are with people. This too is difficult for the simple reason that our organizations are insanely distracting. There’s always a deadline looming, a crisis to deal with, or an annoyance to put to rest. All of this takes us out of the moment and puts us into a “sky is falling” mentality. When we are in this state of mind, our bodies are poised for fight-flight—just the opposite of what we need in order to build good relationships. It is very, very tough to get out state. The only way I know to do it is through mindfulness practices like deep breathing and meditation.
  3. Stop multi-tasking. Multi-tasking is really doing more than one thing with less than your whole brain. That might be fine when you are walking and chewing gum, but it’s not ok when it comes to complex cognitive tasks or dealing with people. If you are writing an email to one person while talking with another, neither one is getting the best of you. And at least one of them knows it.

By doing these things, you set yourself up to learn and practice the deeper behaviors required for empathy—to ask people for feedback about how they perceive you rather than assuming you know; to talk about how people feel rather than dismissing people’s emotions as irrelevant or unimportant; to make them believe you see them and that you care. People want to feel loved and appreciated at work – and if you’re not giving them that, you’re not succeeding as a leader.

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