Leading with Empathy

Photo by Hannah Busing on Unsplash

They say, ‘Don’t be afraid to ask questions!’. Let’s ask some that have been asked and answered a million times over.What makes one a good leader? What is the one quality in a leader that is important but often overlooked?

We have all read articles on leadership that have left us intrigued, articles that echo our thoughts and confirm our ideas about leadership, most of which have been drawn from studying success stories and personalities. Today, it is no more a question of whether we know that a leader should be motivating, inspiring and encouraging because we now know what it takes to be one(thanks to articles and interviews shared about successful leadership on social media platforms). What we however don’t crack very easily is how to become ‘motivating, inspiring and encouraging’ for others among other things. Most would agree that technical expertise is relatively easier to measure and quantify. Qualitative qualities such as ‘emotional intelligence’ and ‘ability to read and understand people’, not so much!

It is a given that a good manager is adept at setting deadlines, tracking progress, defining KPIs… and the list is long. She also has an eye for resources who are competent, hardworking, mindful of their work and deliver on time. But leadership goes way beyond knowing who is the right person for the job. A leader is not just a task-manager! Let us ask - How does one get these team members to go a step beyond what their job description states, contribute to pitch in ideas and go beyond ‘ I’m done for the day’ to ‘ Let me spend another 15 minutes finding a better way to do this’ even when they are not told to do so?

Answers to some of these can be found within ourselves, in questions that we ask from the other end of the bridge before we cross it, that is. Beginning with ‘What do we as employees look for in our managers?’

‘I was really disappointed that she didn’t acknowledge how I handled questions from the client that left him impressed’. ‘I really wish he understood I have to leave early today. I have willingly stayed back on days we need to meet deadlines voluntarily’. ‘I secretly hope he acknowledges that I filled in for my lead and successfully delivered a release while she was away on maternity leave’. ‘I made a blunder while I was juggling with 3 tasks and was running out of time and I am afraid she won’t understand that it was an honest one-time mistake’.

If we scrutinize these complaints, and there could be many more, we realize that they stem from a lack of empathy. In simple words, Empathy is the ability to put oneself in someone else’s shoes and know, where the proverbial shoe pinches. Empathy makes one feel psychologically safe and helps people open up. Empathy helps one identify and see problems in the first place, which then need to be resolved. Empathy helps one understand another, who can then motivate, inspire and help. Empathy also makes one feel welcomed. Without it, many problems could go unnoticed and undetected.

It is important to realize that while the team works on providing business solutions, the leader, additionally, must look at providing people solutions.

It is important for a leader to realize that efforts need to be acknowledged. That while it might not have been an extraordinary task for a senior with 8 years of experience to accomplish, it definitely is an achievement for someone with 3 years of experience in the industry to deliver. That empathy and understanding are crucial in forming a tightly-knit team. That engaging in casual discussions can leave the team inspired.

Here is a story from 2003 that speaks volumes about Leadership. Saurav Ganguly, the then captain of the Indian Cricket Team, had a tough call to make. India was scheduled to go to Australia for a test-series tournament with only 2 spin bowlers and selectors were against Anil Kumble while Ganguly believed that he was one of the best spinners on the team who was just going through a bad streak. He also knew that if Kumble didn’t get to play in Australia, his career would come to an end. He not only convinced the selectors to get him on the team( at the cost that IF India lost, Saurav would have to walk away from the team), he also told Kumble to not give in to the pressure and suffer from fear of failure. Kumble took the highest number of wickets and turned the game around in India’s favor. India ended up winning the series.

It is very important for a leader to anticipate what the team members fear that keeps them from delivering their best, and then reassure that ‘ Hey, I’ve got your back, I know you can do it!’

Many say having difficult conversations is the trickiest part. But if you are a leader your team members trust, walk up to with problems, walk up to for discussions, walk up to admitting to mistakes, you can be assured that you will have developed a sense of personal loyalty that makes them want to deliver for you and not just for KPIs and appraisals. It will leave them wanting to do more, deliver better.

Ask yourself ‘How would I want my manager to react in such a situation’? ‘What would I appreciate in my manager’? Answers to these, in my opinion, can guide you in your journey as an empathetic manager and leader.

A team can and should be much more than a machine that works with clockwork precision. Build a team that looks forward to Mondays at work and ‘Wow I really didn’t think of it that way’ coffee breaks!



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