When I started working as a young professional I remember my boss, an HR Director, telling me, "People need to check their personal lives at the door!" We've come a long way since those dark times. Now, in general, we realize people show up to work with a myriad of backgrounds, stressors, joys, and complicated lives. None of that means that they don't want to work, do a good job, and help their company move forward. What I've found in working with executive clients is that they often lack the empathy to understand how to be flexible and inspire their teams. Whether I'm working with an emerging leader or a seasoned CEO, I find that they often miss the importance of empathy in their leadership style.
Empathy is an action. As an action it requires effort on our part. For some of us, this action is easier than for others. For some, engaging in the action never occurs to them or they have just never done it so it feels foreign. It also requires something else that I find oddly lacking in many high level leaders. Courage.
If you think in terms of an entrepreneur, they are certainly courageous. They have an idea that they believe in so completely, they are willing to take a variety of risks to bring it to life. This often pays off in gaining market share, growing the company, and even creating a desirable culture. You find them taking risks as leaders to create new processes and scale their companies. Many executives are also courageous risk takers. They often have demonstrated the courage to do things differently. They have analyzed their markets, their teams, and the business environment and have made courageous choices to move forward. Why then do these amazing leaders falter when it comes to empathy? I think it's because to be empathetic requires us to see the uniqueness in the individuals with whom we empathize and often face fears and feelings for which we have no context.
Empathy isn't a one size fits all engagement. Not only does empathy require us to be understanding and have a heightened sense of awareness, it also requires that we experience the feelings and the thoughts of someone else without having those feelings and thoughts explicitly communicated to us. We have to put ourselves into someone else's shoes and truly understand their life. This is a tall order for any of us, but it is especially daunting when you have a team to manage, a department to run, or a company to guide. It requires time and energy and human investment. And let's be honest, even when you achieve empathy you have to be prepared for what you feel and perceive because you may have no basis for understanding it.
I always say that my own personal situation is particularly an empathetic challenge. I lost my husband a little over a year ago and quite often people say things to me like, "I can't even imagine," or "I don't know what I'd do in that situation." What has happened is they have tried to vicariously feel my pain or my sadness and it has overwhelmed them. Indeed, if one hasn't lost one's spouse, it is a very difficult thing to imagine or understand. For some, it's too difficult and they avoid any attempt at empathy at all. Courage fails them.
Beyond the loss of my spouse, I also deal with all of the challenges that come along with being a single parent to two young children. You'd think that would be easier for people to empathize with -- especially other parents. But again, it takes courage to truly, vicariously see one's self in my position because so many people don't want to think of themselves in a single parent role. The truth of the matter is, being a single parent requires me to be all things to my children. I am present parent, caregiver, provider, confidant, and giver of hugs. I'm also the only one who can show up to a parent-teacher conference. I'm the only one who can get dinner on the table. I'm the only one who can manage homework, bath time, and bed time. All of those things are time consuming and ultimately rewarding despite being sometimes difficult. None of it means my career aspirations are less. None of it means I don't want to achieve. What it means is that I have a desire for connection and for inspiration like so many.
If you're a leader of a team, a department, or even a company, think about the people who work with you. Have you had the courage to connect with them? Do you know what it feels like to be them and what they face every day? If not, have the courage and take the time to make the connection. You may inspire them to find ways to do things differently to deliver on the things that you need from their role - because they know they have your support. You may be able to offer them a different point of view that helps them find the empowerment they need to be successful. Seeing the people on your team, really seeing them, takes courage. It is a powerful courage that can propel your leadership and strengthen your team. Be courageous.