I recently attended a Creative Mornings talk and saw Dr Addie Wooten, CEO of Smiling Minds, talking about Empathy. It was a fascinating presentation, especially when she showed a video from Brene Brown Watch Here. In my opinion, to be a great leader you really have to understand what drives people’s decision making and behaviours. When I started work back in the 1980’s, as far I can remember being empathetic was just about being a good boss and generally a nice bloke!! The word empathy was not used in everyday language back then. There were bosses who understood how to lead people in a way that seemed, just smart, then there were those bosses that managed with a carrots and sticks methodology, who shouted and blustered. At times, both were effective and in my Character Angels blog Read Here I have Character Angels who lived in both camps. I’m not sure that I realised it at the time, but the empathetic leaders I encountered had a deeper impact on the type of leader I wanted to be.
If we research the definition of Empathy, it states ‘Empathy is the experience of understanding another person’s condition from their perspective. You place yourself in their shoes and feel what they are feeling. Empathy is known to increase prosocial (helping) behaviors.’
Now as I said previously, the word empathy was not used when I started work. To be honest I never really came across the word in a business sense probably until the mid 2000’s and I’d not heard of EQ, the measure of your emotional intelligence quotient, until a few years ago.
In saying that I have always been lucky that I seem to have been reasonably empathetic (a good bloke!) in my natural work environment. I think most of what drives this behaviour is our upbringing and life’s experiences, some so subtle that you’d have no inclination it was actually shaping you. Others are a kick in the arse lesson. One such lesson that totally changed the way I think of others was back in the late 90’s. I was working in a great office with amazing people, a company that I enjoyed working for, and unbeknown to me a company that was helping shape me into the leader I am today. One weekend my family suffered a serious incident that had a major impact on me, that continues to this day. It hit me really hard and I struggled for weeks to really concentrate on work. The people in my office were very supportive and I remember one day feeling especially upset about what had happened. One of the team came over to chat and was very nice and supportive. I however, was a douche and short in my answers and patience. I remember thinking, “how can this person understand what I’m going through, what do they know?” After a few more minutes this person said something, I don’t remember what, I know it was supportive but I just blurted out, “what the hell would you know about tragedy, you’re just a kid”. To which they responded, “How dare you question me, I’m trying to help. I lost my brother in a car accident when he was only 3 years old!!” That comment impacted me so hard, I’ll never forget how I felt. There I was, feeling sorry for myself and being selfish when this person had experienced tragedy like I couldn’t imagine. Honestly, that was one of those kick in the arse lessons you never forget, and from that moment on it had a massive effect of me. That one moment taught me to always stop, learn as much about people you interact with and their drivers as is humanly possible, and understand that age has nothing to do with it. It’s why my first kick off meeting with a new mentee includes a session with my journey timeline canvas so that we discuss what’s impacted each of us in life and work. This ensures we can develop a growth plan and goals for the future that acknowledges the events that have shaped who we are.
Even though at the time I didn’t truly understand the impact, it was the biggest lesson that I have learnt about empathy during my career, and for that matter life. In my opinion, leadership is all about understanding the drivers that trigger people’s reactions in all manner of situations. Empathy is a skill that I call upon every day within my varied leadership roles, even though I continue to learn about it all the time.
So if you have the skills to be truly empathetic, what do you do with it? I believe that being empathetic towards others will not only be of benefit to your team, but your peers, your bosses and even your clients. If you can unlock that, then dealing with situations, both good and bad becomes a lot easier to navigate. It’s a very tough talent to master and I doubt that anyone has ever mastered it 100%. However, in today’s society as more and more of us strive for job satisfaction, to be the best we can possibly be and looking for the next challenge, as leaders we must always be questioning why people are reacting and behaving the way they are to certain situations. We can then help them navigate through it and get the results we and they strive for. Only then can we learn and understand the triggers that drive behaviours and responses, including our own emotional responses, so that we can truly manage the situation for the best outcomes every time. That’s why, to be a true leader we need to lead through their eyes….