Empathy keeps leaders grounded. Through empathy leaders keep their finger on the pulse of what teams are capable of. Many times I see managers make demands of their teams that are not feasible.This creates tension which can lead to turnover. By constantly understanding barriers of their teams they know when a demand is too much.
Empathy, the ability to understand and share the feelings of another, is increasingly recognized as a pivotal leadership trait. In an ever-evolving business landscape, leaders who exhibit genuine empathy are better equipped to connect, inspire, and drive their teams towards success. But how exactly does empathy shape leadership dynamics? How can it be harnessed to foster stronger relationships, improved decision-making, and a more inclusive work environment? As part of this series, we had the pleasure of interviewing James Marrugo, LPC.
James Marrugo is a Psychotherapist practicinng out of Greenwood Village Colorado. James has spent much of his clinical focus on helping people get rid of unwanted thoughts and feelings.
Thank you so much for joining us in this interview series. Before we dive into our discussion about empathy, our readers would love to “get to know you” a bit better. Can you share with us the backstory about what brought you to your specific career path?
I did not originally intend to become a Psychotherapist. I originally wanted to develop video games for a living. I started on that path and soon realized making video games is not rewarding at all. I took a year to discover myself and read a book about social intelligence. It really sparked my interest in human psychology. I decided to get a bachelor’s degree in psychology and go from there. During my college years one professor pulled me aside and mentioned I have all the makings of a great therapist. He told me I’m always curious about people, people trust me easily, and I’m very accepting of different people. I realized as he was talking to me, that many people in high school would share their problems with me. Even people who barely knew me would share secrets with me. It was at this time I started taking psychology classes focused on therapy. I loved the classes and the professors would echo the same guidance other professors had given me. I decided to go all in on becoming a psychotherapist and now here I am years later. Living the dream!
Can you share the most interesting story that happened to you since you started your career?
I was an intern at a addiction recovery center and a few months into my internship the pandemic hit. The supervisors and clinical director became very busy with trying to save the clinic. Instead of getting hours of one-on-one time I was left on my own to learn how to be a therapist. During this time everything was switching to remote work, telehealth as it is known now. This was a skill that was never taught during my program and I barely knew how to give therapy in person. I was effectively drowning in paperwork I barely knew how to complete, learning new systems, and learning new clinical skills that no one had experience in. I saw two options, quit and preserve my sanity, or push threw. Its obvious which choice I made. I lost my job right at this time and since I had nothing but time I decided to use all my free time to dedicate to the internship. I did every single intake that came in, I took classes paid for on my own dime to improve my clinical skill and become certified in telehealth, and found examples of how to complete the ongoing tidal waves of clinical paperwork. Eventually the dust settled. My director noticed my hard work and spent lots of time with me teaching me about business ownership. That entire experience set me on the path of owning my own private practice
What do you think makes your company stand out? Can you share a story?
My company is the place people go when they want to be challenged into leveling up their mental health. I get to know each of my clients as individuals and create custom tailored challenges for them in order to promote growth. Morning Coffee Counseling is designed for those who have a growth mindset and don’t make excuses for a lack of progress.
The name of my company comes from my wife who for years suffered with daily migraines. Every day she would wake up early and have coffee as the caffeine would help alleviate her pain. For years she lived like this, even on the worse days when her migraines would cause her to lose vision in one eye. Regardless she would show up for the day and power through. The name is a nod to her resilience as resilience is something that takes daily stress to build
You are a successful business leader. Which three character traits do you think were most instrumental to your success? Can you please share a story or example for each?
The first is is that I am passionate about what I do. Due to my passion I am resilient and full of energy to keep going even when things get tough. When I started my career as a psychotherapist the pandemic had just begun. I had to learn skills none of my peers knew and spend extra time and money paying for certifications that were new to my industry. I had the passion to adapt and change with the times and not all of my peers or colleagues were able to make the transition into telehealth to continue. The therapists we have today are the ones who had enough passion to stick it out.
The second is that I am authentic. I am comfortable with my own vulnerability and that lets people see me for who I am. In another word, I am real. This helps me build relationships with both my clients and colleagues. I cannot do this alone and no influential leader has been alone. People don’t want to follow someone who is known or appears to be fake or full of it. I show up authentically and people either like me or not. Either way, I am who I am.
Third, I’m extremely accepting. I strive to accept in my life as much as I can. I accept the problems that I face and the solutions to the best of my ability. What I mean by acceptance of solutions is that in business, one must often pivot in order to survive. The best business have made pivots when needed. During the pandemic, many restaurants closed down. The ones that pivoted most likely did not. Many created new menus in order to make food more deliverable and started delivering alcoholic beverages. This is a perfect example of of a pivot that required acceptance of a new way to function.
Leadership often entails making difficult decisions or hard choices between two apparently good paths. Can you share a story with us about a hard decision or choice you had to make as a leader? I’m curious to understand how these challenges have shaped your leadership.
I think the hardest decisions a leader can make are decisions between the organization and the people in it. One of the hardest decisions I made was about my rate as a therapist. By raising my rate, I priced out a lot of people but in doing so I was able to make a higher income and work less hours. This allowed me more time to work on other areas of my business and personal life that had been ignored. It was a difficult transition but one that needed to happen as I was getting burnt out from the workload. As a leader, my most important task is to lead. Anything else must be delegated. This experience reminded me that I need to focus on what is most important both personally and professionally. I’m not in a position to ignore my most sensitive tasks.
Ok, thank you for that. Let’s now jump to the primary focus of our interview. Let’s begin with a basic definition so that all of us are on the same page. How do you define empathy in a leadership context, and why do you believe it’s a vital trait for leaders to possess in today’s work environment?
Empathy is the ability to put yourself in another person shoes and feel their emotions. I believe that empathy is a vital trait because without it, you’re just a manger and not a leader. Leaders motivate people. Leaders bring people up and assist them in being their best selves. Leaders aid in ridding others of unwanted emotions. Leaders promote others to engage in meaningful work instead of just making sure all the metrics are good. Leaders use empathy to understand their followers while managers make sure they are seen positively by their superiors. Empathy is a tool to understand the barriers to higher performance in others.
Can you share a personal experience where showing empathy as a leader significantly impacted a situation or relationship in your organization?
I have to use empathy everyday. By understanding the unwanted emotions others around me have, I can determine if I have their solution. By providing that solution that will assuage their pain, I build relationships and aid in ending their struggle. Both for my clients and my professional relationships. My career requires me to build relationships. I cannot function without this ability to empathize with people around me. The referrals I receive, the clients I help, the colleagues I turn into friends is all centered around my ability to empathize with them. Effectively, without empathy I would not have a career at all.
How do empathetic leaders strike a balance between understanding their team’s feelings and making tough decisions that might not be universally popular?
They strike a balance through authenticity. Be honest about the tough decisions and how people will likely respond. Label the emotions that are in play as a leader. Be human. Vulnerability is not a weakness it is a strength. A leader can both be understanding and make a tough decision. It does not have to be a black or white decision. Leaders can choose both. Being a leader means being empathetic and it also means bearing the burden of tough decisions. Believing it is one or the other is naive. Effective leaders do both simultaneously.
How would you differentiate between empathy and sympathy in leadership? Why is it important for leaders to distinguish between the two?
Empathy is feeling with someone, sympathy is feeling for somone. It is important because sympathy is giving someone pity. Wheras empathy is sharing an experience with another person. People want to feel connected with. By engaging in empathy, leaders can help others not feel alone and that feels secure to people. Sympathy is showing emotions at an arms length away. Sympathy is effectively saying “sucks to be you.” Compared to the message of empathy, “we are in this together.”
What are some practical strategies or exercises that leaders can employ to cultivate and enhance their empathetic skills?
Label emotions out loud. Use words such as anger, fear, and sadness. Use emotional language instead of talking around the emotion. Label the emotions of others and oneself. This will force a leader to engage in active listening. This requires focus and to not engage in conversations while being distracted.
How can empathy help leaders navigate the complexities of leading diverse teams and ensure inclusivity?
Leaders must acknowledge the unwanted thoughts and feelings of others and discover creative solutions to address the emotions of diverse teams. One team might feel angry while another team feels anxious. How do you address both and keep the teams intact? Leaders must understand why emotions function. Anger exists when there is a wrong doing. Examples include lying, cheating, and stealing. Anxiety exists when people are not equipped to avoid an unwanted consequence. Correct the wrong doing and equip those who feel insecure.
What’s your approach to ensuring that succession planning is a holistic process, and not just confined to the top layers of management? How do you communicate this philosophy through the organization?
Engage in getting feedback from all those in the organization. Find out what the next leader needs in order to bring further success to the organization. Make the feedback anonymous and obtain feedback through a unbiased third party. Communicate this philosophy by making feedback part of company culture. Engage in leadership feedback each quarter. Always make it safe to provide feedback by allowing anonymity.
Based on your experience and research, can you please share “5 Ways Empathy Will Affect Your Leadership”?
1 . Empathy allows leaders to understand the barriers to higher levels of performance. People want to be high performers. People want to succeed. When a leader puts themselves in the shoes of another, they can see the world as they do and see the barries. By acknowledging the barriers, a leader can assist in removing barriers.
2 . Empathy earns respect. People want to connect with others. Followers want to know they are understood by their leaders. Earning the respect of others makes being a leader easier.
3 . Likeable leaders deal with less resistance. By engaging in empathy, leaders become likeable. More personable. It is easier to deal with hard news or tough decisions when you personally like someone. People want to work and are willing to sacrifice more for those they like on a personal level.
4 . Empathy keeps leaders grounded. Through empathy leaders keep their finger on the pulse of what teams are capable of. Many times I see managers make demands of their teams that are not feasible.This creates tension which can lead to turnover. By constantly understanding barriers of their teams they know when a demand is too much.
5 . Empathy improves communication. Everyone has their own style of communication. Leaders who engage in empathy learn each style of communication and can phrase their points in a way that is easy to understand for the receiving person. This builds trust, closer relationships, and keeps people communicating.
Are there potential pitfalls or challenges associated with being an empathetic leader? How can these be addressed?
The dark side of empathy is emotional burnout. As a psychotherapist I deal with this regularly. Empathy is a human connection on an emotional level which means there is a price to pay for being connected to others. Time to process in isolation is the best method I have found for dealing with emotional burnout. Just to be alone and meditate, think, or journal gives space for the mind to let go of the emotions of others.
Off-topic, but I’m curious. As someone steering the ship, what thoughts or concerns often keep you awake at night? How do those thoughts influence your daily decision-making process?
If I’m making the best decision fo the future of my company. Being a leader means bearing the burden of important decisions. I often become anxious and have to slow down my mind in order to not get caught up in my own thoughts. It is a skill I practice almost everyday. I can’t let unchecked emotions drive my logical thinking. I do my best to make sure when I’m about to make an important decision that I am emotionally calm and healthy. If I’m not, then I will not make a decision until I am.
You are a person of great influence. If you could start a movement that would bring the most amount of good to the most amount of people, what would that be? You never know what your idea can trigger. :-)
Having all managers become leaders through emotional intelligence! There is a lot of free and public research on the benfits of developing emotional intelligence for leaderes. There is no reason not to build emotional intelligence in business.
How can our readers further follow you online?
You can follow my work on my website lised here: https://morningcoffeecounseling.com/
Thank you for the time you spent sharing these fantastic insights. We wish you only continued success in your great work!
About the Interviewer: Cynthia Corsetti is an esteemed executive coach with over two decades in corporate leadership and 11 years in executive coaching. Author of the upcoming book, “Dark Drivers,” she guides high-performing professionals and Fortune 500 firms to recognize and manage underlying influences affecting their leadership. Beyond individual coaching, Cynthia offers a 6-month executive transition program and partners with organizations to nurture the next wave of leadership excellence.