As a mother of a 9-year old, I often come across incidents which make me wonder the age at which I began to turn into a heartless human. My son recently did something very unusual for his age which left me surprised. And, trust me, it’s not just my motherly affection talking, I truly believe that he was more empathetic and sensitive than I could imagine.
A week ago, we were casually sitting in our lobby when he ran up to me and asked me where his favorite pair of jeans was. Assuming that he wanted to wear them to the playground, I asked him why he wanted them, asserting my authority over him. He told me that there is a boy outside who tore his pants after he fell into the open manhole which the maintenance guys had left unattended the previous day. The boy was crying inconsolably because he had just one pair which his parents bought him on one condition that he wouldn’t ask for anything else for the next 6 months. He was afraid his mother would scold him for such carelessness. My son couldn’t bear that sight and decided to part with his favorite pair of jeans. And, I didn’t have any valid reason to stop him from doing what he was doing.
I quietly saw the scene unroll before my eyes, smiling as the boys exchanged hugs and smiles. Later, when I spoke to him about it, I understood that he placed himself in that boy’s shoes and imagined how he would feel if he was in that situation. That’s pretty noble for a 9-year-old, isn’t it?
One could easily classify this as a classic act of generosity wrapped in innocence, but I choose to put this under Empathy- cause the choice of being generous towards a human being rather than clinging on to materialistic pleasures was certainly the deal maker.
This incident made me realize that we all have that empathy gene (or used to have it as children), but somehow while growing up, we end up being more practical.
We stack empathy at the bottom of our skill-pile, while, most certainly, it should be on the top.
However, as Leaders, this is one of the most important characteristics that one must have. Let’s see the “Why” in detail.
Why do leaders need to be empathetic?
Empathy fosters a feeling of trust and builds strong relationships. Empathy instills the faith in your team members that their feelings are taken into consideration and they aren’t just a means to an end. When you empathize with them, you create a strong bond which creates a better and strong communication channel which earlier existed just as a medium to transfer information. With this new-found trustworthy relationship, the team feels more at ease in sharing their feedback or raising their concerns. This, in turn, increases the team’s creativity and enhances their performance.
So, how can one put empathy into practice?
Here are a few ways which I feel might help you-
1. Listen with all your heart
When someone comes to you to express their thoughts, understand that it’s a lot of effort for them to come out of their closet and share things openly. So, at that moment, it will be your listening abilities that can make a world of a difference. Don’t just be physically present, listen with all your mind and heart. Maintain as much eye contact so that the other person feels at ease. Avoid interjecting as it breaks the flow of conversation. Rather, just listen until the team member takes a pause.
2. Understand the context before taking any decision
Don’t be reactive or jump to any conclusions if the team member quotes anything which you find inappropriate or incorrect. Rather be observant and try to understand their side of the story. Probably, what you knew earlier was just one side of the coin.
3. Be approachable
A leader who is approachable puts their team members at ease with their empathetic listening skills. When people know that they can come to you with good, as well as, bad news, they are more likely to share everything with you. Even if they make blunders, they aren’t afraid to accept their wrongdoings.
4. Ensure your team member’s happiness
When team members feel that their leaders are invested in their career, when team members get frequent feedback and appreciation for the work they do, they feel valued. They feel that they are an integral part of the organization’s success. This, in turn, makes them feel happier and more productive, innovative and creative. So, make sure that you know and care about each individual contributor and if they are happy with the work they’re doing.
Can empathy be learned? I would say, yes, it can be practiced, only if it is a genuine attempt. Because if you fake it, you are very likely to fail.
Some people have empathy as an innate human trait. These people (like my son!) are naturally gifted at quickly sensing other people’s problems. On the other hand, some people have to work upon developing that empathy muscle.
It’s not that difficult, you know! All you have to do is- before you act, stop, think and imagine yourself in the other person’s shoes.
I really hope this blog helps you understand why empathy is one of the most crucial skills for a leader. If you are in a leadership position or aspiring to be one, this is the first skill that you must learn.