Leaders have the ability to put themselves in other peoples' shoes. They do this before making decisions. Really good leaders have the ability to not only put themselves in other peoples' shoes but are also able to completely remove their own shoes while doing so. This is a tough one, because we are all motivated by self interest and tend to think first about how an issue or situation impacts us, not someone else.
Let me give you an example of an empathy encounter I had with a leader of a manufacturing company. I was in a meeting with him discussing some consulting work we were doing for them. A guy came in from the production floor, all sweaty and greasy, and looked like he was about to cry. The leader invited him in, and without prompting, the guy just spilled his guts.
His dad had been dealing with cancer, and they had just gotten the news that it had spread. They had given him less than a couple of weeks to live. Without hesitation, the leader told the guy to go home and take as much time as he needed.
Two observations first come to mind about this encounter. First, the leader was not his immediate supervisor, he was actually his bosses' bosses' boss (for lack of a better way to describe it). The leader had to have displayed some type of empathy on regular basis for this guy to feel comfortable enough to come to him, show his emotion, and ask for help. The leader was also obviously aware of the situation beforehand.
Secondly, I knew that they were WAY behind on production when this incident occurred. Being a small firm, this guy's presence on the job mattered to them in terms of meeting the production schedule, but he was nevertheless instructed to take as much time off as he needed to be with his family.
Well you ask, who wouldn't be empathetic in dealing with an issue like cancer? I agree, its much easier in situations like this to feel another person's pain or emotion. What if it is a more difficult situation, say you have someone that you suspect is stealing from your company. Or, maybe less harsh, but frustrating to say the least, you have someone that is constantly late for work and it effecting the morale of others?
Here are some ideas for seeking to be a more empathetic leader in all situations:
1. Listen. If you aren't listening to your people, and more importantly, listening to what isn't being said, its hard to be empathetic and it is even harder for people to perceive you as empathetic.
2. Be available. An open door is an opportunity for you and your team to learn from each other and support one another.
3. Be present and ask questions. Do your people see you on a regular basis? Do you ask them about their day, their kids, their weekend? Finding out personal issues may help you combat work related issues before they begin. And if people know your going the extra mile to care for them, they will go the extra mile for you at work.
4. Simply ask yourself "If I put myself in this person's shoes, what would I see or how would I feel?"
5. Think before acting or speaking. Are you dealing with a difficult employee that you would really like to to just cuss out and then show the door? Before you approach that person, think and plan your course of action before doing so and gather the facts before acting. The end result may be the same, but the way you handle the situation will make all the difference in how your other employees perceive you.
6. If you are having trouble responding to this above question, sit down with someone you trust who is removed from the situation and see what they think or how they would respond. They may be able to give you objective insight into how to best approach the person and the situation, in particular giving you and idea of how the other person may feel.
What other ideas do you have for cultivating an empathetic attitude?