Empathetic Leadership: 7 Tips for Supervisors

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Original artwork by Joy Pedersen

As supervisors, we are in a powerful position to impact people’s lives. We spend an average of 90,000 hours at work over our lifetime. Most days we spend more time with our coworkers than our families. Therefore, our relationships at work affect our quality of life, our wellbeing, and our ability to make an impact on the world.

It goes without saying that our relationships at work impact our organization’s success. And if we want our staff to care about the success of our organizations, then we need to care about our staff.

As a new supervisor, in my 20’s, I was eager to show off my knowledge and efficiency. I was quick to reorganize the office, make organizational changes, and “improve” processes. Unfortunately, I was not truly leading. When I looked behind me, no one was following. I had not built relationships or trust with my team. I came into work each day and went straight to my office to return emails. My staff was unhappy, and eventually I was miserable too.

I learned an important lesson about leadership from that experience, and I approached every future leadership opportunity differently after that job. Being a leader is as much about the soft skills as the hard skills. Leadership is about helping others be the best they can be so the whole organization thrives.

An empathetic leader seeks to understand their staff.

Here are some tips for being an empathetic leader:

  1. Invest in relationships. The best advice I ever received from a mentor was, “It’s all about relationships.” Spend time getting to know your staff. Learn what is important to them. Is someone on your team taking care of an aging parent? Going through a divorce? Getting married? It takes time and effort to have authentic conversations, but these conversations are crucial to being an effective leader. Relationships also require a certain amount of vulnerability. Let your staff know interesting facts about you and find connections. Bonus tip: Emails do not build relationships. Pick up the phone, walk over to their office, take them to coffee or lunch.
  2. Assume the best. Most of us make assumptions about how others behave. These assumptions are based on stories we tell ourselves, the perceptions we have of others, and confirmation bias. Confirmation bias occurs when we filter information to look for examples that confirm our existing beliefs about a person. In short, we see and hear what we want to see and hear. These assumptions can poison our relationships if we attribute negative traits – like laziness, greed, or selfishness – to others. Rather than assume another person’s behavior is due to their shortcomings, try to assume that everyone is doing the best they can. Then, ask questions so you can truly understand the behavior. By assuming the best, we keep our relationships positive and respectful.
  3. “Tell me more.” Empathetic leadership is about understanding – understanding the behavior, values, motivation, hopes, and fears of our teams. Understanding starts with being curious and asking questions. And, the way we ask questions makes a big difference. Many supervisors frequently ask the 5 W’s – who, what, when, where, why – without realizing the impact of these questions on their staff. These types of questions can feel like interrogation. Instead of asking “why,” try saying, “tell me more.” For example, replace “why did you do it that way” with “tell me more about your process.” This approach disarms the other person and reduces their defensiveness; therefore, opening them up to be more honest, authentic, and truthful.
  4. Take responsibility. As supervisors, it’s our responsibility to be clear about what we expect. It’s also our responsibility to create an environment that fosters success, provide necessary trainings, and support our staff. If our staff are not meeting our expectations, we must reflect on what part we play. We should frequently ask our staff, “What do you need from me to help you be successful?” In order to do this, we must understand the experiences of our staff. Are they feeling frustrated? Are they afraid to make a mistake? Are they feeling undervalued? We must be able to answer these questions, then take responsibility to make sure our staff are able to work at their full potential by addressing the issues within our control.
  5. Encourage risk-taking. A team that is afraid to take risks cannot grow. In order to feel safe taking risks, people must know it’s ok to fail and make mistakes. Failure and mistakes are part of any job. As a supervisor, we need to reassure our team that it’s safe to take risks. One way to encourage risk-taking is by sharing our own failures, admitting when we make mistakes, and apologizing when we have hurt others. Another way to encourage risk-taking is to give our staff opportunities to take small risks and support them if they fall short. Risk-taking requires trust, therefore our staff must know that we have their back.
  6. Show appreciation. Appreciation has several impacts. First, it shows people that you see and value them. Second, it encourages positive behavior. It is a lot easier to reinforce a positive behavior than correct a negative behavior; yet, we often miss our opportunity to tell people what behaviors we would like to see them continue. Finally, it makes a deposit with the other person. As supervisors, we have to make requests and withdrawals. It helps to have deposits in a relationship when we need to ask someone to do something hard or deliver a difficult message to them.
  7. Respect everyone. Most leadership articles about respect focus on how leaders can earn the respect of their staff, but empathetic leadership is about giving respect to our staff. Showing respect is a reflection of our own character. As leaders, we should show respect for others because everyone has value. We do not have to agree with or like other people to show them respect. And, our staff should not have to earn our respect. Everyone on our team has inherent value; and therefore, deserves to be treated with respect.

As a supervisor, our attention is pulled in a million directions, which makes it difficult to attend to others. At its core, empathy is about paying attention, seeing and understanding others, and helping others achieve their full potential. Although it takes more time and effort, it is time well spent and an investment in your organization’s success.

 

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