Odell Mitchell III is an organizational effectiveness consultant, attorney and the founder of Three kindnesses.
The atmosphere in the room was already tense when one of the leaders in the room announced, “I would never ask my people to do something I wouldn’t do.”
It was, of course, meant to convey camaraderie and inclusion. It had to be a rallying cry to cheer on a struggling and burned out team.
Unfortunately it fell completely flat. Several voices spoke softly: “What if you are asked to do something that is not right for our team?” “If that’s true, how can we trust you to keep us safe?” “Does this mean you’re not protecting us from bad policies?”
This was followed by a deeper conversation, which was arguably the best outcome, but I come back to that moment time and again when I hear leaders struggle to connect with their people. It’s a common belief that being in the trenches with your employees is enough to build trust and gain buy-in. After all, the root of compassion is “suffering with,” but what if true compassionate leadership requires more of us than just a willingness to do the work we demand of others?
We could debate the merits of empathy in the workplace indefinitely, but there is: final proof that empathetic leaders have more productive teams. Psychologist Daniel Goleman writes that “empathic concern requires that we control our personal suffering without numbing ourselves to the pain of others.” Empathic concern is a form of cognitive empathy in which leaders control their own emotions while remaining open to the struggles and challenges of those they lead.
To be clear, empathy isn’t just putting yourself in someone else’s shoes. This is an oversimplified and useless way of defining empathy. It requires that we recognize the wholeness of another human being and that their experiences, which are just like or different from ours, are still worthy of respect, understanding and compassion.
When my fellow leader declared his commitment to “do everything his people were supposed to do,” he was clearly unaware that while he had the ability to deal with specific tasks without difficulty, he assumed and the expectation was that everyone else could and should do that. do the same. This is not just the antithesis of empathy; it undermines everything we know about the critical role diversity and inclusion play in teams.
When leaders view teams through the lens of empathic concern, they can suddenly see that a team is not about mutual suffering, but about mutual understanding. True leadership never assumes: “I can do it, so you should be able and willing to do it too.” That’s not empathy. That’s compliance, and the results will never be what you want if you’re more concerned with the latter than the former.
In psychology, social sensitivity is referred to as the personal ability to perceive, understand, and respect the feelings and points of view of others. Deeply connected to empathy and self and social awarenesssocial sensitivity is the ability to provide external recognition and validation of the feelings, experiences, and challenges others face.
People with a high degree of social sensitivity make excellent diplomats, especially because they have the ability to reserve their own thoughts and feelings to make room for the feelings and experiences of others. Good leadership requires walking the fine line between being transparent enough to make people feel safe and being reserved enough to allow others to express their views and concerns without fear.
People with lower social sensitivity often talk more than they listen, expressing their opinion loudly and often and claiming that they like a good argument. This is not leadership. This is bulldozing. Unfortunately, all too often this brash trifecta is part of a package seen as leadership material. But a lack of social sensitivity leads to a lack of psychological safety in teams and leads to many problems.
Fortunately, like empathy, you can develop your social sensitivity muscles. Improving your active listening skills, cultivating curiosity, and sharpening your awareness of the impact you have on others are all ways to become more socially sensitive and improve your leadership skills.
Of course, listening more than talking requires a lot of self-control and the rule of our ego. In my personal hall of fame of great leaders, I would place kindness, empathy, and good listening skills at the top of the list of the best leaders I have served under. These qualities not only made them good people, but also good managers who achieved the necessary results. And perhaps more importantly, those high levels of empathy and social sensitivity also made them masters at managing and disseminating conflict.
In his book The 7 Traits of Highly Effective PeopleStephen Covey writes, “When you show deep empathy for others, their defensive energy goes down and is replaced by positive energy. Then you can become more creative in problem solving.”
For leaders who are truly concerned about team morale, productivity, and efficiency, it’s hard to think of a better skill to cultivate than empathy. I cannot emphasize enough how important it is to control your own feelings and egos to ensure that your employees feel seen, safe and valued.
With quiet quits and work-from-home debates filling our news feeds, we have to accept that the days of “you can’t lead from behind” are over. I believe that we can lead anywhere if we lead with sensitivity, compassion, empathy and kindness.