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Leading With Empathy In The Workplace

Liesel Mertes
Liesel Mertes

Why does empathy matter?

Empathy is the essential leadership skill of 2020. Empathy is the ability to honor and respond to the pain of another person, the capacity to let that person know that they are seen and heard and that they are not alone. 

When this sort of intentional care occurs, it has a profoundly positive effect on businesses, communities, and families. And yet, empathy is a skill that is often under-appreciated and even unpracticed, especially from top leadership. 

In the 2020 Empathy in the Workplace Study, 76% of employees said that empathy leads to higher productivity. This sentiment was only shared by 50% of CEOs. Additionally, 70% of employees said that empathy drove a lower turnover rate while only 40% of CEOs agreed. 

There was no class

Disruptive events happen regularly in the lives of your people. Even before the mess that is 2020, your coworkers still experienced difficult things: cancer, divorce, even burying a child.

In the two years I spent earning my MBA—a degree all about managing people—not five minutes of a single class period was devoted to how to care for people going through hard times. 

I launched Handle with Care Consulting in 2018 to address this lack of training. As I work with companies, leadership teams tell me that they feel overwhelmed and under-equipped to support their people as they wrestle with grief, trauma, and the disruption of 2020.

What’s in your empathy toolkit?

When I was in sixth grade, I watched an eighth-grader named Billy dart out into traffic. He was in a hurry, he wasn’t looking, and I watched in horror as a car hit him.

Billy hit the pavement hard. I had no idea how to help. Within minutes, a first responder arrived at the scene, bag in hand. He pulled out bandages and a blood pressure cuff, stabilizing Billy until the ambulance arrived. His job was to help Billy get to whatever level of care he needed next.

Every time you find yourself witnessing the pain of another person, you, like that paramedic, have an opportunity to use your empathy toolkit: You become an Empathy First Responder. 

For most of us, we use our empathy toolkits unconsciously, defaulting to engrained behaviors. Our toolkits are shaped by a lot of factors, like your family of origin, your personality, what someone told you the first time you scraped your knee. Spoiler alert: you (and I) don’t always have the most helpful tools in your toolkit.

Empathy avatars: which one are you? 

Here is the good news, you can improve! Empathy is a skillset that you can grow in. The first step to growth is to take an inventory of your empathy toolkit. 

In my training sessions, I lead clients to greater awareness by introducing them to common empathy avatars: Common default response patterns. Have you interacted with any of these types? How did they make you feel? Have you been any of these types?

  • Silent Sam doesn’t want to say or do the wrong thing, so he does nothing at all and hopes the problem will go away.
  • Fix-It Frank is a problem solver by nature. He is quick with a suggestion of what someone needs to do to “get better”.
  • Cheer-Up Cheryl has the gift of positivity, but she is always pushing people to look on the bright side, often before they are ready. “At least” is one of her favorite phrases.
  • Buck-Up Bobby is inconvenienced by displays of emotion. He believes in powering through difficult emotions and feels strongly that emotion has no place in the office.
  • Commiserating Candace jumps in quickly with her own story, hijacking the narrative. Suddenly, the conversation becomes all about her. Or her sister. Or her dog. You get the idea.
  • Interrogating Edward is a natural investigator. He likes getting to the bottom of things. He’ll pepper you with questions: “Well, why do you feel that way?”, leaving you feeling defensive.
  • Joking Julie changes the subject with a joke. She dismisses your story and makes light of your pain. She does this to herself, too.

What can I do to build empathy?

Do you see yourself in one of those types? 

Just last week, I found myself pulling a Buck-Up Bobby, after my son got sent home for a (potential) case of COVID. I berated him for not being able to deal with an allergy headache without going to the nurse. Not my best parenting moment.

We also had a pet bunny die. Before Bluebell was in the ground, I was researching where to get a new Holland Lop; operating in full-on Fix-It Frank mode. 

Empathy tip 1: cultivate awareness

Observe yourself over the next week. When do you find yourself defaulting to these behavior patterns? You can deepen your awareness by vulnerably asking a family member or a coworker who knows you well if they experience you as a particular type. 

Empathy tip 2: radical attention

This is especially important for the Commiserating Candaces or Cheer-Up Cheryls: coach yourself to quietness and attention. This is not the time to share a story or a pick-me-up cliché. The most important thing is to let the person in front of you know that they are seen and heard. You don’t need to fix her or make the pain go away. Just be present for them.

Empathy tip 3: something is better than nothing

You won’t always get everything right—none of us will—but the effort shows that you care. Integrate statements like, “I’m so sorry that you’re going through this” or “That sounds hard” into your empathy vocabulary. They show resonance without judgment. 

And if you don’t know what to say, say that! “I don’t even know what to say right now, but I just want to let you know that I care.”

Empathy at work matters. Each time you improve your toolkit, you increase your capacity to show up and be an Empathy First Responder, helping those around you survive, stabilize, and thrive. 

Liesel Mertes is a Workplace Empathy Consultant, host of the Handle with Care podcast, speaker, trainer, and the Founder of Handle with Care Consulting. You can find out more about her work at lieselmertes.com

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