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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Dear World

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Dear World is a team that travels the world to amplify the voices of individual stories through portraits. They have captured over 70,000 stories and been featured in USA Today, CNN, NBC, and Buzzfeed. Our stories are powerful because they connect us to each other. Learning about each other is vital to our success, as a community, a species, and a planet.

Here is my story:

Dear World,

I have faith.

Marriages end for many reasons. It’s difficult to say exactly what happened, but I chose to leave. I felt my life depended on it. The year my marriage ended was full of new beginnings, uncertainty, and transitions. For the first time in my life I felt I couldn’t be certain of anything, but through the changes I felt a calmness that I can only describe as faith. I had no idea what was ahead, but these words kept coming back to me – have faith.

I share my story because new beginnings are possible, sometimes we are stronger than we think we are, and there are always better days ahead. We are all one choice away from a completely different life.

“Faith is taking the first step, even when you don’t see the whole staircase.” – Martin Luther King, Jr.

Helping students create healthy boundaries

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Every year I meet with students who are exhausted, frustrated, angry, and suffering because they are taking care of another student. While we encourage students to engage in up-stander behavior, students should not feel they are responsible for the ongoing health and well-being of another student. Of course, we want students to look out for each other and help each other avoid dangerous situations; but taking 24/7 shifts to be with another student indefinitely, feeling the need to use their cell phone to track another student’s location, frequently leaving class to respond to another student’s emergency, regularly staying up all night or missing study time to care for another student, and regularly checking in with another student via text or other means to be sure the other student is ok, are unhealthy behaviors.

As educators, many of us also have caretaking tendencies. There is so much need in the world, it is tempting to give our time, energy, and expertise to the point of exhaustion. I often draw on my own experiences when helping students learn to establish boundaries. For some caretaking students, this is their first exposure to creating boundaries.

These are some tips I share with students who are struggling to care for their friends and have healthy boundaries.

  1. Set limits  – Many students I meet with are uncomfortable setting limits. They tell me, “I can’t tell her no.” “I have to be available.” I give them examples of what limits sound like, and ask them if they think they would be able to say these things to their friend. For example, “I have to study tonight and will be turning my phone off from 5 p.m.-10 p.m.” or “If you call me and tell me you are going to harm yourself, I will call campus police because I care about you and don’t want you to hurt yourself.” I also remind students that when they set limits, they need to follow through. And, I reassure students that limits can be set in a loving and compassionate way. For example, “I really care about you and am concerned, but I’m not a trained professional. And, if you feel like harming yourself, you need to call the Hotline.”
  2. Identify referrals and resources – Students are often concerned that if they aren’t available, their friend will be left alone and without help. I help students identify other resources and sources of support they can provide so they don’t feel solely responsible for another student. I encourage students to tell their friend to call the Hotline, a parent or family member, or 911 if their friend needs help.
  3. Be aware of your feelings – Students who are caretaking often feel angry and resentful. Sometimes they are ashamed of their anger and express that it feels selfish to feel angry when their friend needs them. However, anger can be an important signal that our boundaries are being violated. I encourage students to notice when they feel angry, resentful, or uncomfortable, and consider whether that might be a time to establish a boundary.
  4. Be direct – It can be challenging for some students to be direct, especially students who are raised in collectivistic or high-context cultures. In collectivistic cultures, communication tends to be indirect and a high value is placed on avoiding conflict. When the situation involves two students from different cultural backgrounds, it can be important to talk about communication styles and help them practice being direct.
  5. Focus on your purpose – I remind students that they are attending university for a purpose. By ignoring their own need to study, sleep, exercise, and attend class, they are making choices which take them away from their purpose.
  6. Identify what is in your control – I encourage students to make a list of what is within their control – when they eat, sleep, study; how often they check their phone; who they spend time with; whether or not they go to class. Then, I ask them to make a list of what is beyond their control – whether their friend takes his/her medication; if their friend decides to drink alcohol or take drugs; whether their friend gets angry; ultimately, other people’s choices. Finally, I encourage students to focus on the things within their control and let go of those things which are beyond their control.
  7. Self-care – When students are caretaking, they tend to neglect caring for themselves.  This can take different forms – giving up sleep, study time, exercise. It is critical that caretakers realize they must take care of themselves before they can take care of others. Taking care of another person with a mental health issue can also lead the caretaker to experience psychological distress as well. I encourage students to maintain regular exercise routines, eat healthy, schedule study time, and try relaxation techniques like meditation and mindfulness to remain healthy and academically successful.
  8. Name your guilt – This is one of the hardest parts of setting boundaries. There is usually a fear that by not being available, not checking in, and/or not responding, one is being selfish or even takes the risk of not being there to prevent a tragedy. This is a valid concern, and it deserves acknowledgement. There is a real reason why the student is concerned about his/her friend. However, guilt should not prevent students from focusing on their own needs, self-care, and purpose, and I try to help students find the balance between caring for themselves and others.
  9. Seek counseling – I often refer students to Counseling Services. I explain it can be helpful to have someone to talk to who doesn’t have an agenda. While a student might have friends and family who can be supportive, a counselor can help a student determine what is in the student’s best interest, help the student better understand the relationship, and help the student set healthy boundaries. Sometimes I meet students who are enmeshed. They are involved in a relationship or friendship where boundaries seem impossible. It is especially important in these situations that students have opportunities to speak to a licensed professional therapist.

These conversations can be difficult. Sometimes students get angry with me or express that they simply cannot establish boundaries. But many times, students come back and thank me for helping them. Being a caretaker is often unsustainable, and inevitably a student either establishes boundaries or has to give up being a caretaker due to exhaustion or frustration.

8 Things to Do While You Wait

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“Everything is hard before it is easy.” – Goethe

Over a lifetime we will wait for many things – a vacation, a resolution or verdict, the perfect shot, the arrival of a baby, the homecoming of a loved one, a job opening, and sometimes things that are less pleasant. Waiting can bring excitement, uncertainty, fear, and hope. Whether we are waiting with optimism or anxiety, waiting can be difficult.

How can we make waiting easier?

1. Breathe.

When waiting makes us feel overwhelmed or anxious, breathing can relax us. Deep breaths help slow the heart rate, calm the nerves, and lead us to clearer thinking.

2. Prepare.

Get busy preparing yourself – get in shape, get educated, or get organized. Preparation will increase the chance of a successful outcome when the waiting is over.

3. Let go.

Identify what is in your control, and let go of everything else. Things within our control include our attitudes, words, and behaviors. Things out of our control include airline schedules, weather, other people’s opinions, acts of nature, and a whole lot of other stuff. Don’t spend your time and energy on what you cannot control.

4. Live fully.

Don’t waste your time. Keep living your life. Say yes to social invitations, take risks, and try new things.

5. Stay positive.

When we are waiting, we are vulnerable to fear and doubt. The future is full of uncertainty, but it is also full of potential. Being positive is a choice.

6. Be grateful.

When we have our sights set on the future, it’s easy to forget how great things are in the present. Take a moment to count your blessings.

7. Do your best.

The game of life is won one point at a time. Focus on the shot that can be taken in the present moment.

8. Find community.

Surround yourself with encouraging and supportive people. Whether you have a formal or informal support system, your friends and family can help you stay positive and focused during a challenging waiting period.

Image Steve Slater

10 Tips for Getting It All Done

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I recently revisited some of my old blog posts and found this gem. I have been a hobby blogger for the past seven years, and when I first started blogging I wrote a lot about balancing my personal and professional life. Although my days are filled with different responsibilities now, I still find these tips extremely useful!

The past twelve months have been extremely busy. At the height of it all, I was working full time, preparing for a baby, writing my dissertation, serving as a committee chair for the local United Way, and running a side business. How do you do it all – balance home and work while finding meaning in modern life?

Here are ten tips for getting it all done and feeling fulfilled at the end of the day:

1. Set small goals. Most of my commitments are part of a larger long-term goal, such as finishing graduate school. It these cases, it can take a long time to reach success. Instead of measuring success by the completion of my degree, I set goals each quarter to work on my assignments each week. By setting small goals, you can benefit from achieving success more quickly.

2. Build self-efficacy. When I achieve a small goal, I am motivated to work towards another goal because it reinforces my belief that my actions can lead to positive results. This is in effect building self-efficacy – the belief that our actions have certain consequences. Remind yourself of your achievements. Research tells us that people who believe they can accomplish a goal are more likely to achieve that goal.

3. Write it down. I don’t know about you, but ideas and thoughts swim in my head all day, and every once in a while I have to “unload” my brain. Writing things down allows us to focus our attention on the important things, rather than spending energy remembering a thousand little things. By writing down everything that’s on your mind, you’ll also be able to group similar items (just like when you file papers). You may find that some items can be accomplished simultaneously.

4. Nurture your relationships. I have all my girlfriends on speed dial. If I’m having a bad day or need someone to give me an “atta girl,” I call up a friend. Relationships are like our emotional armor – they protect us from disappointment, fear, loneliness, and set-backs. Medical researchers have found that those who have friends tend to be happier, healthier, and live longer than those who do not.

5. Work it out. A few years ago, I was talking to my physician about all the stress in my life – her prescription? Exercise. In our modern world, we sit at desks, talk on the phone, and type on our keyboards all day. There is no outlet for our natural fight or flight responses to deal with stress. Over time, either days or weeks, the stimulus we take in begins to accumulate. Exercise is a natural stress reliever and a mood enhancer.

6. Schedule the “big stuff”. The best analogy for this comes from Stephen Covey’s book 7 Habits of Highly Effective People. If your time is analogous to a bottle, and you first fill your bottle with small rocks and sand then there is no room for the “big rocks.” However, if you first fill your bottle with “big rocks,” then the small rocks and sand will fit in between the cracks. Covey’s message is to schedule the important stuff first – a date with your spouse, a phone call to your best friend, a workout, a massage, etc. Otherwise, these things won’t fit into your schedule.

7. Be grateful. No one can do it all alone. It takes many people to achieve a great accomplishment. Acknowledge the contributions of others to your own successes and show gratitude. Gratitude has many benefits as well, scientific evidence indicates that grateful people feel more inclined to share, and that gratitude is linked to optimism, better health, and positive social interactions. New research tells us what philosophers and religion have told us for thousands of years – being thankful can increase our overall happiness.

8. Be patient. When I have back to back meetings, a looming deadline, and I’m trying to catch the last bus home, it’s easy to lose my patience. In this modern world, we often find ourselves in long lines, traffic jams, and put on hold. However, without patience, we are left annoyed, frustrated, irritated, and angry. When you lose your patience, remember to be grateful. Count your blessings – you have a job to provide for your family and a house to call home.

9. Enjoy the moment. With a packed schedule, I have made the mistake of thinking my “to do” list is only temporary – that once I get through it I can enjoy life, my family, my vacation. There will always be items on your list – phone calls to make, cards to write, projects to finish. It’s part of being alive! John Lennon once said, “Life is what’s happening when we’re making other plans.” If you wait until you have checked all the items off your “to do” list, you’ll miss everything!

10. Learn to live with imperfection. Whether you have many or few commitments, no one gets it right all the time. The need for perfection turns our attention to what’s wrong with something and leaves us feeling dissatisfied. This is not to say don’t do your best, but rather try not to be overly attached and focused on how things could be different. Remember what they call the guy who finished last in his class in medical school – Doctor.

There’s one more item not included in this list, but of great importance – Keep your sense of humor!

Managing Your Boss Saves You Time

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Today Paul Gordon Brown published a great post on What They Didn’t Teach You in Grad School: Managing Up. He is right on when he said, “learning to manage up entails a critical set of skills necessary to advance and be successful in your career.” I share the following tips on how to successfully manage your boss in my Time Management workshop. I have been presenting this information to groups of students and young professionals for years, long before I started working for my current boss. Regardless of your age or professional level, I think these tips are still helpful.

Why is it important to manage your boss?

•  An adversarial relationship with your boss can cause stress (which equals wasted time)

•  When your boss trusts you, you will be given more freedom to work independently (big time saver)

•  A positive relationship with your boss may result in additional resources or support (that may save you time)

9 Steps for Managing Your Boss

1. Bring solutions not excuses

Believe it or not, your boss doesn’t have all the answers. And if he/she does, it may not be the answer you want to hear. It is better to bring the solution you would like to see than to take a chance on the solution your boss may suggest.

2. Exude confidence

When your boss sees that you are confident, you are more likely to be trusted and given more autonomy. This creates more flexibility for you to do your work independently as well.

3. Prepare your “done” list

Be prepared to share your accomplishments with your boss. When you are asked “what have you been up to?” or “how’s it going?” you should have a positive response that demonstrates your contributions and productivity.

4. Clarify

Clear communication and expectations are paramount to your success. Be sure you understand what is being asked of you, who you can turn to for help, and how your success is being measured. If necessary, take notes in your meetings so you can refer back to conversations about these key expectations.

5. Approach your boss with honesty, respect, and empathy

Support your boss’s decisions. Do not bad-mouth your boss. Approach your boss in private if you disagree or have a concern.

6. Manage your meetings

Be sure you know when your next meeting is with your boss and what you need to have done by then. Be prepared with appropriate questions.

7. Avoid Interrupting

Your boss is a busy person. Do your best to find answers and resources independently before interrupting your boss.

8. Don’t draw attention to your mistakes

Avoid turning a mole hill into a mountain. Overall, your boss wants to hear your good news and positive stories. For every problem you bring to your boss, be sure you have shared 2-3 solutions or positive outcomes.

9. Learn to read social cues

Timing is crucial. Understanding how your boss behaves when he/she is working on a deadline vs. feeling sociable can increase your chances of gaining positive or negative attention. Do not attempt small talk if your boss appears stressed. On the other hand, if he/she is feeling sociable take the opportunity to share a few success stories.

Check out another great article on What Everyone Should Know About Managing Up at Harvard Business Review.

Thoughts on Heroes and Men

Somehow last week I managed to hide under a rock, and I did not hear about the death of Dave Goldberg until this weekend. Dave Goldberg was chief executive officer of SurveyMonkey and husband of Sheryl Sandberg, author of NY Times bestseller Lean In: Women, Work, and The Will to Lead. According to many media sources, Dave was the man behind the successful woman. He was a supportive and involved spouse. And, Forbes said, “[his feedback] played a critical role in giving the book its heart.”

I’ll be honest and say I have not fully bought into the  Lean In movement, since I’m not sure that encouraging women to increase their ambition and acquire more power is going to solve the inequalities we face in our current culture. However, what I do buy into is the role of men in the movement. Men who want to support and encourage women, to do their part in building an equal world, and to be true partners in marriages, families, and relationships, are critical to achieving equality.

I believe we gain the most ground by inviting men to be allies in any feminist movement. We also gain ground by allowing and encouraging men to step outside the gender box – to be stay-at-home dads, share domestic responsibilities, and be involved in family life. Fortunately, I have had these types of men in my life, starting with my dad. I have also had male mentors, teachers, advisors, co-workers, and friends who have supported my ambition and success.

When men are partners with women at home, encourage them to seek growth opportunities, use respectful language, and praise their accomplishments, men become heroes in the movement towards equality. It takes a man who is smart, brave, confident, and fair – all qualities of a great hero – to embrace an equal partnership. It is with supportive men behind us, or better yet beside us, that women can have it all.