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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Dream Stealer

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By Joy Pedersen

A dream stealer is living inside each of us. It steals our dreams because it cannot dream. 

If we want to save the world, first, we must save ourselves from it.

We fight evil in the outer world, but inside the dream stealer continues to live off our insecurities. 

It doesn’t want us to know the truth. 

It is afraid of many things – feelings, change, difference. 

It is especially afraid of our dreams. We have so many dreams. Our dreams are reaching out to us, calling, pleading to be let in.

The dream stealer feels threatened by their foreign ways – thoughts, ideas, language. It does not trust these strangers.

Our dreams tell us, “Have compassion. We are all connected.” These ideas frighten the dream stealer.

Our dreams use words like “imagine,” “trust,” “create.” The dream stealer cannot do these things.

The dream stealer does not like the way the dreams make it feel. The dreams bring change. They bring hope. 

The dream stealer fears the loss of control. It fears discomfort. It fears losing its power.

The dream stealer cuts down the dreams with its weapons – guilt, shame, judgement. It uses dogma to keep them at bay. It builds a wall to keep the dreams from us. 

The dream stealers wants to control us. It keeps us shackled by reminding us of the past. It keeps us in a cage it has built by creating fear of the future. 

The dream stealer is a master of illusion. It comforts us with its promises, but its promises are lies – meaningless and worthless. Its words are empty vessels.

It is a coward. It is easily scared off. If we confront the dream stealer, it will lose its power.

It disguises itself in order to trick us. It prefers to hide. If we remove its mask, we will see what it really is. 

Its tactics are faulty. Its arguments are illogical. If we question it, we will find there is no truth in what it says.

If we want peace, we must conquer it. 

If we want love, we must overcome it. 

If we want to be free, we must defeat it.

We are stronger than we think we are. It is weaker than it appears. 

We are fighters, lovers, and dreamers. It is no match for us.

Coming Home

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by Joy Pedersen

In a world where love is getting harder to find and keep, we can always find it in nature.

In nature, we are all loved. The trees hold us like a mother’s arms, the wind whispers our name like a lover’s voice, the sun dries our tears like a consoling friend.

In nature, we can speak our deepest secrets. The mountains hold our fears like trusted brothers. The birds listen to our sorrows like faithful sisters. The streams sooth our mournful cries like sage companions.

Put your feet in the dirt. You are connected to the earth.

Look towards the stars. You are part of the universe.

Place your hands in the water. You are linked to everything.

You are not alone.

You are a perfect creation.

You are loved.

Change

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By Joy Pedersen

Do you resist change?
Do you worry about the future?
Do you cling to the past and mourn your losses?
Do you fight aging?
Do you fear death?

Take a page from Nature’s book,
We don’t expect the caterpillar to crawl forever
We don’t tell the baby bird to remain in the nest
We don’t judge the whales for migrating
We don’t fault the sun for setting or the leaves for falling
We celebrate evidence of changes in Nature– blooming flowers, waterfalls, and full moons

Nature burns down her house to create new life
Nature is in perpetual motion
Nature does not make mistakes or have regrets
In Nature, the sun rises again, the storms pass,
And new life springs from the ashes
Go into Nature. Be still. Look within. Pay attention. You will find the answers there.

House on Fire

I have been carrying this story in my heart for the past six years, and I decided last night to put it on paper.

House on Fire
by Joy Pedersen

My baby girl was born in a burning house.

The flames were small at first. It was burning slowly – behind the walls, under the ground, in the attic.

But eventually, the walls began to crumbled, the windows cracked, and the panes blew out.

The fire engines came, and I turned them away. “You must leave,” they said.

“We’re fine, “ I replied while the shingles fell from the roof around me.

My friends shouted from outside, “Get out! Save yourself!” But I continued to live there.

I continued to live in the windowless, roofless house with cracked windows and crumbling walls.

The floorboards glowed with fiery embers. But I learned to tiptoe to avoid being burned.

Smoke filled the air. But I learned to take shallow breaths.

“It’s not that hot,” I told myself.

The flames became unpredictable. I came home to find rooms burned, furniture ruined, another part of the house damaged.

The heat was unbearable at night. As the sun set, the temperature rose. By dark the house was steaming.

On one of these hot nights, when she was four years old, my daughter woke me up. She touched me in my sleep, and said, “Mommy, the house is on fire.” I opened my eyes and looked around. The fire was everywhere. The flames were white hot. The smoke was thick. My skin was burning. My eyes were stinging.

I looked down at my beautiful little girl. She was so calm, so brave, so full of life. And I said, “You’re right. It’s time to leave.”

I picked her up. I walked out the door. And I never looked back.

That night, everything burned. The house was destroyed. But we were saved.

The Man and the River

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By Joy Pedersen

Once there was a man who loved to wander through the forest. He spent days exploring rock caves and hidden valleys. One day, he came across an enchanted river. The water in the river was always pure. It made a magical sound as it flowed across the rocks. The river provided an abundance of fish and brought in creatures from across the mountain ranges. The man decided he needed to live by the river.

The man built a house next to the river. Every morning he bathed in the pure water. Every night he sat at the river’s edge and admired its beauty. And while he slept, the sound of the river brought him the most amazing dreams. Then, the river began to dry up. At first it was too low to bathe in. Eventually the fish could no longer swim there. The creatures stopped coming across the mountains. And eventually, the river was gone.

For years, the man continued to live in his house by the dry river bed. Every morning he walked down to the edge of where the river used to be, hoping the river would return. At night while he slept, he dreamt of waking up to the sound of the water flowing. He wanted the river more than anything. He was afraid if he moved on, he would forget the river and the magic he felt when he was near it.

At the same time, upstream there was a woman. The woman loved to wander through the forest and had also found the magical river. She fell in love with its mystical powers and decided to build a dam. Her dam created a huge pool and stopped the water from flowing down stream. Every morning she bathed in the magnificent lake she had created. The creatures found the lake and started coming across the mountains again. For years, the woman lived alone by the lake.

Some say the woman found the man one day while she was exploring in the forest. Others say the man eventually grew tired of living alone by the dry river bed. In any case, the man and woman eventually crossed paths. The woman brought the man to the lake, and once again he felt the magic of the enchanted water. He was awakened. He realized that the magic had never disappeared, it was always out there even though the river was no longer. He was no longer afraid to leave his home. He knew he would never forget the magic of the river and he would always find his way back to it.