The Empathic Leader

It’s guest post Monday! Today’s post is a guest post by Dan Erickson.  Dan teaches communication courses at a college in the Pacific Northwest.  He was the child victim of a cult and has developed a unique view of life and leadership.  Dan has written two books, A Train Called Forgiveness, and At the Crossing of Justice and Mercy.  You can learn more about Dan Erickson’s work at http://www.danerickson.net. 

As a child, working for the leaders of an extreme religious cult, I learned a few things about leadership: mostly what not to do.

We’ve all worked for one.  You know, one of those people who has absolutely no understanding of the way you feel.  In fact, they don’t really care at all.  They’re simply task managers, cracking the whip to make you perform.  That’s what it was like for me as a kid. 

As an adult I’ve worked for some good and some bad bosses.  I studied some of the great modern entrepreneurs in college.  I wrote my Master’s thesis on Woody Guthrie.  Yes, he was a leader, and a pretty good one.  He helped to lead an entire social movement.  One trait I’ve noticed that great leaders have is empathy.  Let’s define that word:

Empathy: the action of understanding, being aware of, being sensitive to, and vicariously experiencing the feelings, thoughts, and experiences of another.”

“Empathy: the ability to imagine oneself in another’s place and understand the other’s feelings, desires, ideas, and actions.”

Great leaders have empathy for their followers.  They allow themselves to internally experience what their followers are experiencing. To become a empathetic leader I suggest:

 1.  Be understanding. As leaders it is our job to be understanding of our followers.  We are all human.  We all have good days and bad days.  When one of your followers is not performing as they usually do, ask them what’s going on.  Listen closely to their response.  Try to put yourself in their shoes. 

2.  Be aware.  Great leaders know their followers.  Why?  Because they interact with them.  A truly great leader may not even consider his or her employees followers, but rather part of a team of equals.  As a leader, make sure to interact with your team.  Get to know each member.  Watch how your team members interact with one another.  Be alert to personality conflicts and other potential problems.  And when a problem arises… see point #3.

3.  Be sensitive.  Don’t just attack problems with a fix-it-quick mentality.  People, and relationships between people, are complex.  You need to study the issue.  When you talk to those who are performing poorly or having a dispute, you need to have a thorough understanding of the underlying causes before making suggestions for change.  When I was a kid in the cult, I was never asked why I was working slowly at times.  I was just told to get moving.  If they would have asked, they’d have known I had severe headaches, as I got migraines as a kid.  But the leaders were not sensitive.

4.  Be vicarious.  Put yourself in the other’s shoes.  Ask yourself how they feel during a given situation.  How would you feel?  Allow others to express their feelings, their thoughts, their ideas and desires.  Listen!  After you have listened, imagine yourself in their position before reacting. 

Finally, I’d like to point out that being empathic does not mean being a wimp or a pushover.  You still need to be firm and hold your ground as a leader when a situation calls for it.  If a team member is repeating inappropriate behavior, you may need to take further action.  Be empathic first, but don’t be afraid to set limits.  And even if the worse happens and you must cut someone from the team, do it with understanding and sensitivity.  Be an empathic leader.  When you use empathy as one of your leadership traits, you’ll find that people will respond to you.  Your organization will run more smoothly.  It’s a win-win situation for all involved.

Questions: Can you describe a situation when you wished someone would have had more empathy with you as a follower?  Can you describe a time when you successfully used empathy as a leader?

 

Please note: I reserve the right to delete comments that are offensive or off-topic.

  • Great post Dan! One word that kept cropping up in my mind while I was reading your post is “vulnerability.” I’ve never seen any an authentic leader who was not vulnerable. When I notice leaders who honestly shares his strengths as well as weaknesses, I cannot help but admire his confidence. This action alone accelerates the relational building between leaders and followers.

    After going through assessments like Strengths Finder 2.0 and Stand Out by Marcus Buckingham, I realized that I naturally have a sensitive toward people’s feelings and thoughts. I knew I had this latent talent but never really leveraged or maximized it as a leadership strength. One of the things I’m doing to be more empathetic is to be palpably vicarious. This requires that I am aware of my followers and team members and know their unique needs and wants. Whatever I do, I try to think from this perspective and try to serve and add value. What I realize though is that when I am not in my best condition, I resort to non-empathetic tactics despite my good intentions.

    • Thanks Paul. It’s very hard to be empathetic at times. I’m a college instructor and a single dad. I’m a fairly patient and tolerant man, but there are times, when my patience is stretched, that empathy is the last thing on my mind. I think there are times we need to step back and think things over before making decisions. That time can allow for us to remember to put ourselves in the other’s place. Do you have any suggestions for ways to remind ourselves to use empathy?

      • I’ve been always interested in the study of emotional intelligence. Daniel Goleman’s book Primal Leadership and Emotional Intelligence has been helpful in my understanding of empathy. I heard good reviews on Travis Bradberry’s Emotional Intelligence 2.0. It’s replete with good, actionable pointers on how to be more socially aware and competent. http://www.amazon.com/Emotional-Intelligence-2-0-Travis-Bradberry/dp/1441842233
        Other than that one thing that has helped me is listening. Pure listening. When I listen, I listen not only to the meaning of the statements, but survey the context and body language. This has been natural for me but I’ve tried to be more intentional in catching specific cues of myself and in my interactions. I would record it on my journal sometimes as well.

        • DS

          Pure listening – what a great description!

        • Pure listening is a great skill to practice, but oh so hard for most of us. I’ve read much of Goleman’s work in the past. Good stuff.

  • Empathy is an important trait to have as a leader. As a human being, really. Understanding people’s feelings and motivations, and being able to relate, is a critical social skill everyone needs to possess . . . and those who lead even moreso.

    • The best dean I ever had was a woman. The reason she was so good is that she was also the most empathetic. I learned a lot from her.

      • That’s great you had a positive example of a empathetic leader.

  • I actually think that empathy is one of my better qualities as a leader. Number 3 above still gets me though.

    • That’s great, Larry. I do my best. Sometimes I feel like I’m a bit too quick to react. Do you have any tips on how you wait before you speak?

    • That’s great Larry!

  • Excellent post, Dan. Unfortunately, I’ve known too many leaders who have not had empathy for their followers. It seems like the big visionaries (who are often in positions of leadership) are not inclined toward empathy, so it’s something they may have to consciously work on. I’m pretty empathetic unless someone causes me pain. Then, it becomes a process of forgiveness, which sometimes takes longer than I’d like to admit.

    • I believe that true forgiveness is a never-ending process. We have to do it each day, so never longer than it needs to be, Chris.

      I think we live in a culture where leaders are seen as tough, decisive, and productive at all costs. That does not lend itself to empathy.

      • Very true, Dan. It’s not always as simple as praying a prayer and giving it to God. We often take it back form Him the next minute or the next day.

        • Right. We have to go back day after day and ask for help in the forgiving others. It’s a practice.

  • I can’t recall when someone use empathy with me. I think that’s partly, or probably mostly, my fault. Throughout my life I have been bullheaded, stubborn, so I didn’t necessarily create an atmosphere for others to be empathetic towards me. I’ve been empathetic towards others many times. At one point I had a team member that was usually late to our weekly conference calls. After 2 or 3 occurrences I asked him if everything was OK. He said that he just needed from time to time drop his son off to school, when his wife couldn’t. I said, no problem. When my kids were younger I had to drop them off at the bus stop as well. I am a family so understood that family responsibilities are always there. I just asked him to shoot me a quick email if he was going to be late,or just join the conference call and put himself on mute, and take care of his personal stuff. Good stuff, Dan E.

    • Thanks, Juan. Sometimes being understand about the little things will win the favor and loyalty of our followers more than anything else. I mentioned a female dean I once worked for in another comment. If she ever called me and asked me to work for her again, I’d jump at it. And it’s because she treated me with empathy.

  • DS

    I don’t believe you have to separate being empathetic and setting limits. To me empathizing is trying to understand and relate to how a person could come to their conclusion, or their action in a given circumstance. As a people oriented person, I’ve found that being empathetic is a tremendous way to help others feel valued – and who doesn’t like that?

    • You only have to separate the two if someone takes advantage of your nature. Unfortunately, there are people who will take an inch a mile and try to manipulate those who are empathetic. YOu just have to realize this can happen and be ready to draw the line.

      • DS

        I guess I was filtering it from a lens of you hearing where they’re coming from, but not necessarily having that impact your decision making. Thanks for the clarity.

  • Great post, Dan! “Being empathic doesn’t mean being a wimp.” Love it! In fact, being empathic is often the more courageous path.

    • So true, Justin. Being empathetic takes more emotional energy and that can be hard.

    • I think that point is so important to remember. Glad you enjoyed Dan’s post.

  • I like the wrap up; “Win/win.” That is the point that most selfish leaders miss. The shortsightedness of people thinking that it has to be a win/lose are the ones who treat people poorly in their insecurity. Early on in leadership I treated people the way I’d been treated – it made for great results, but the turn over was rampant. Now with time I try to work smarter, still hard, but smarter than harder… Great post, Dan.

    • I think many people, and perhaps especially men, are given to a win/lose style of leadership as a norm in the competitive world we’ve created. We see it in the media all the time. We’ve been trained to push for results or else. But when we treat others the way we’d like to be treated, we might find that others will treat us much better and will work smarter for us, too.

  • I work best for empathetic leaders Dan and want leaders to understand my point of view. And I think the key is awareness which always doesn’t come easily. To be aware, we have to step back and observe, reflect upon what’s happening and get a deeper understanding of the people and circumstances around us. Sometimes we’ll be able to see what’s going on and sometimes we have to be even more observant.

    I recall a time where an employee that worked for me did something that should have be a terminable offense but I really tried hard not to terminate them because of their many other positive qualities. After much examination, reflection, attempts to understand forgiveness (and empathy no doubt), they stayed on and continued to flourish. One incident where empathy saved the day.

    • Great example, Vishnu. We’re human and make mistakes. When we forgive others for their mistakes it sends a strong message. If the behavior were repeated then you’d have to think twice.

  • I love your fourth point – so many problems could be avoided if we all put ourselves in each others shoes. Too often I jump the gun and want to solve the problem – my intentions are good, I want to help the other person feel better, but my strategy is bad. Most people don’t want you to solve their problems for them unless they’re actually asking for help. I would be better off just listening and asking the occasional questions to help them understand and solve their own problems. Thanks for the good reminder.

    • Thanks, Barb. I think we’re all guilty of trying to be the problem-solver, when at times another just wants to be heard. Can you think of strategies or questions that might lead to listening rather than forced solving?

      • Haha, well the first question that comes to mind is Dr. Phil’s, “How is that working for you?” but if they’ve ever watched Dr. Phil that might not work (I’ve only watched a few times, but I already know that’s his question). I can’t think of any standard questions. It seems like if I’m just honestly trying to understand where they’re coming from and why they do what they do (in a non-condemning way), the questions just come naturally.

        • I agree, and the questions may be different depending on the situation. One thing I’ve learned is to paraphrase both the content and emotion of what they are telling you. That often leads to a more in-depth undertsanding of the situation.

          • I think I do that without even thinking but it’s good to bring it up – if I remember what they taught me in communications class a million years ago, they always said, repeat back what you hear them saying. But i like your additional point of also paraphrasing their emotion. That’s good.

  • Dan, thanks for the opportunity to share on your blog. The offer always stands for you to be my guest as well.

    • Thank you for writing such a great post:) Your welcomed here anytime.

  • Hi – I think empathy is essential for all good working relationships, and very important in a leader.

    I used to have a very stressful job managing a community mental health team and I always did my best to empathise with my staff, who all had challenging jobs, and some of whom often had personal issues that impacted on their work. I had one member of the team who was repeatedly unsuccessful in applications for promotion, and I can recall supporting him through this – I really did feel for him, and I think that came through and meant a lot to him – he was always a really supportive, enthusiastic worker, despite all his disappointments, and he knew I valued his contribution to the team.

    For myself, I once had a really difficult time dealing with a member of staff with whom I had a tricky relationship and who was well known for being a bit of a ‘problem’ – I felt very unsupported by my manager, who showed no real understanding of what I was going through and left me feeling abandoned – it’s the closest I’ve ever come to going off work with ‘stress’ – still makes me feel sick to my stomach when I think about that episode.

    Sue

    • Sue, working in mental health, I’m certain you understand empathy in ways that many of us here may not. I appreciate your sharing and the work you have done. It takes a special kind of person to work in the mental health field. I’m also sorry that your manager did not support you. That must have been hard when you’re already in a high-stress work environment.

  • In a working relationship I was in last year I wished the person would have had some empathy because they went through a similar situation to get in the position they were in. But it appears that they did not take heed to that or feel any empathy. Everyday when I present I feel empathy for others that are in a position where they don’t know their next move. So I make sure that I choose my words wisely and let them know that I understand where they are in life and that they should now be ready to make the next move.

    • As a teacher I get a variety of students. It’s important to me to use empathy. I had teachers that did not use empathy and I know how it feels. It can devastate a sensitive person. However, I still am pretty strict about them getting things in on time.

      • I admire that Dan. And its very important for students to know that.

  • These are great thoughts. I particularly like this “Be empathic first, but don’t be afraid to set limits.” In the past I lived on edges..I was either being too lenient or being too harsh. I’ve since improved but am still a work in progress : ) thanks for these reminders today

    • It’s sure hard to find the balance sometimes. I struggle with that as a parent. You’re welcome and thank you for stopping by.

  • One boss stands out as the least empathetic person I ever knew, and another stands out in stark contrast. I learned powerful leadership lessons from both of them. Lately, I have been trying to teach my two boys to be more empathetic. Helping them to think of a situation from another’s perspective is a valuable way to help them become less selfish, which is something many jr high boys struggle with. Your points are applicable in a variety of contexts, including the one with my kids. Good points!

    • Thanks, Kari. I’m a single dad myself and do my best to practice what I preach with my daughter. Kids struggle with learning empathy, but I think that makes it all the more imperative that we teach it to them.

      • The example we set is definitely the best way to teach empathy as well as most (if not all) character traits. Yes, they do struggle with it. Many adults still struggle with it. But you’re right, it’s essential that they learn it, which they will by us modeling it.

  • Great questions! The main thing that comes to mind is while a leader must be willing to listen and understand, I have to be willing to share and accurately express my thoughts and feelings. Both can be challenging!

    • Great points Lauren! Listening to other people is important. Thank you for reading and sharing.

  • Great post, often people don’t give empathy the credit it deserves. Getting to know others, understanding why they act certain ways and being able to see things through their eyes can eliminate many communication problems.

    But emotions are tricky and so we try to avoid them, especially in work environments. But I remember when my dad was diagnosed with stage four brain cancer, my boss went out of her way to help me on a personal as well as professional level. It meant so much to me. Her heart is a heart I wish/pray all bosses possessed.

    • Glad you enjoyed Dan Erickson’s post. It’s so important to be a support and empathetic with those who are going through a difficult or challenging season. To take the time to listen and care about them. Thank you for sharing about your personal life.

  • Hi Dan,

    This was such an inspiring post and Dan B, thanks for having Dan over.

    Dan, I could connect with all your points and one in particular about how empathetic leaders have an amazing ability to create equals with their followers. In a previous job, I was fortunate enough to work on some projects directly for the CEO, so I had a lot of contact with him. He treated me like a complete equal and he would listen to my ideas, before projecting his own and each decision we made was a joint one, or at least he made it seem that way. It was great.

    Thank you.

    • Hello Hiten,

      Glad you enjoyed the post:) Dan’s Erickson is a great writer and man.

      What a great opportunity. Those types of leaders/managers are the best. Thank you for sharing from your own experience. It’s always great hearing from you!

    • charly

      That´s the key to what seems a great leader you worked for, he was empathetic with you until the final decision had to be made and he took it from whatever input you gave him or maybe he took less than what you proposed, don´t know. So by making you feel like a complete equal, here is the genius of the guy, it will sure make you feel better and work harder and more efficient. At least it would happen to me. But at the end as an employee you have to rely on yourself, just you and only you can make it happen, even if you hate the guy because he´s an a-hole.

  • You know, I’ve always thought about living vicariously through someone else as a negative thing. But I can se how from the perspective of leadership, that could be a real strength.
    And it’s also cool how you’ve learned a lot about leadership by seeing how NOT to lead – I’ve found that to be true for too.

    • It’s amazing what we an learn from observing people and other leaders. I know I’ve learned a lot about how not to lead from past managers. Glad you enjoyed the post and thank you so much for reading and sharing.

  • charly

    I couldn´t agree more, and unfortunately to those questions I have to answer NO. To the second because I have always been an employee not in a position of leadership. (I will get there though) My experience is that of being pushed and overworked and nobody on top gave a damn how I felt, and neither my colleagues since it was competition, jealousy and the whole shabang, it made me be the first to get there and the last to leave if I wanted to keep the job. So nobody really cared if my dog just died, or if I had to go AWOL for a couple of days to visit my mother at the hospital. Just had to keep on keeping on if I didn´t want to loose the job. It didn´t affect me, I just kept focus on the task at hand. But I sure would´ve prefer and empathetic leader.

    • Hello Charly,

      Even though you might not have a leadership “title” you still can and probably do have influence those around you. I hope your able to move into a titled position soon, however, if you can lead yourself well and influence those around you I’m sure you will do fine when you do.

      I hear you, I’ve had to work for several leaders/managers who did the same thing. It’s sad but at least we can be empathetic and do things differently where we are at now and you gain an official leadership position.

      Keep your head up and keep thinking and moving forward:)

      • charly

        Thanks for paying attention to my comment, I just went into your website or blog(still don´t know if it´s a blog if you don´t have the http://www.—-.com, I´ve been in quite a social media-computer hiatus for some time) and I sure can use a lot of your knowledge. Great advice, thanks again.

        • It’s a blog:) I’m glad you enjoyed the post and hope it helped. Feel free to stop by and comment anytime. I look forward to hearing from you.

  • As someone who has been lead and also lead others I can say that you’re completely right about empathy being important. Some of the worst bosses I’ve had lacked empathy. One boss in particular lacked empathy so much that he alienated all his employees. He didn’t even try to pretend to care about anyone. He’d ask personal questions to people and when they would reply he would look disinterested and cut the conversation short as soon as he could. It just made you think that he only asked because some book said it would make him a better employer. As a result, no one cared about him. In fact, we all looked forward to those days when he was away so we could function better without him.

    • Empathy is an essential trait. That’s a good example of someone who did not have empathy. It’s sad but at least we can learn what not to do from them. Thank you for reading and sharing the story.

  • Some of the best leaders I have know were very empathetic. What I noticed about those leaders is that they quickly made you feel that they understood and they cared. This is certainly something I need to work on in my life and my leadership. Too often I’m tempted to not be vicarious because it seems like a waste of time and energy but I know that in the long run it is worth it!

    • Hello Caleb,

      Yes, spending time connecting and building relationships with those who follow you or people around you is so essential. It’s an investment worth making. Thank you for reading and adding to the conversation. Its great to hear from you. I hope your doing well:)