EMPATHY –  A lot of my clients first sessions start with them saying “I don’t need any of that touchy-feely stuff, I just want to get the work done”.  Well empathy, definitely falls into the often-disdained area of soft skills, but let me tell you why it’s important.

What it is:

According to Webster, empathy is: “the action of understanding, being aware of, being sensitive to, and vicariously experiencing the feelings, thoughts, and experience of another of either the past or present without having the feelings, thoughts, and experience fully communicated in an objectively explicit manner; also: the capacity for this.”

You can’t get more touchy-feely than that.  To be empathetic you must understand and experience the feelings of another person.  Who wants to make time for that? I suggest you do if you want to be successful.  We do not come to work in a vacuum.  As humans, things happen that affect our performance.  Good things, bad things, weird things.  If you are not able to understand what your employee is experiencing, how can you gauge how to get the best out of them?

For example; Let’s say you manage the local Animal Shelter.  Suffice it to say that most of the staff have a huge attachment to animals in general and especially to their own pets.  One of your call takers comes to work after having lost a beloved pet, If you’re not empathetic to his feelings, you only see him as a call taker and probably expect him to deal with his emotions on his own time.

If, on the other hand, you understand what he may be experiencing, you adjust to the situation. You realize that he may be faced with taking calls for deceased animals and assign him other duties for the day.

Empathy is the ability to understand how emotions affect someone.

What it is not:

Don’t misunderstand, empathy does not mean accepting poor performance and bad attitudes simply because someone is out of sorts.  As the manager, it is still your responsibility to “get the work done”.  You have a right (and a duty) to call people on their performance and to take measures to make sure it is up to your standards.  Maybe that employee that just lost a pet needs a different set of duties for the day.  If that’s not possible, maybe he doesn’t need to be at work.  But it doesn’t mean that he can come to work and be rude to others or not perform his job. That’s where you must do your job and decide what’s best for the organization.  The ability to empathize can help you decide on the correct course of action.

More importantly, empathy is not sympathy.  Empathy asks you to understand what the other person is feeling, sympathy asks you to own those feelings.  It is the difference between helping someone out of a hole vs. being in the hole with them.  Your job is to help them out of the hole, not get stuck in it with them.

How to Become an Empathetic Manager

So how does a manager go about developing empathy? Become aware.  If you take the time to develop quality relationships with your staff, you will begin to see and hear what they need from you.  At the same time, don’t be afraid to ask.  They will tell you. When they do, believe them and do your best to give them what they need.  In addition to becoming more aware of your staff, work hard at understanding yourself.  Do a basic gut check to see if you’re helping someone out of the hole or if you’re standing beside them. Adjust accordingly.

Empathy. (n.d.). Retrieved February 27, 2017, from https://www.merriam-webster.com/dictionary/empathy