We’ve been talking a lot about empathy in leadership. And after years at his, I’m realizing that many of us empathy activists might be perpetuating a problem:
Some employees and team members think empathy is just a one-way street.
I’m not going to point any generational fingers at anyone, but many leaders I speak to in my workshops and keynotes are struggling with their, often younger, employees. These leaders are working very hard to listen, engage, and connect with their teams. They are trying to embrace empathy.
But their team members are not extending the same courtesy
Empathy is not just a leader’s job. It’s a skill that everyone up and down the organization needs to strengthen and practice to ensure respect AND performance. (TWEET THIS!)
Here’s what I hear:
” I’m trying to be empathetic to my team, but when work slips and I ask for improved performance or extra commitment, I am instantly accused of not respecting boundaries.”
“I am bending over backwards to help my employee through some hard times, but now my team is working double-time to pick up the slack because the work still needs to get done.”
“I’m trying so hard to help everyone on my team who is affected by layoffs. Those who have to leave and those left behind. But I’m constantly met with anger, abuse, and disrespect. Where’s empathy for me? How can we get through this together? My health and stress are also suffering.”
We don’t have to “feel sorry” for leaders when we are in a bad position ourselves. Lord knows a few of them have made difficult situations all about them with absolutely zero empathy for their employees.
But how about a little compassion up the chain, rather than just expecting it for ourselves?
Employees need to understand the larger context of what is going on in the business and the market. It’s unreasonable to make demands or ask for a raise at the precise moment the company is laying off thousands of workers and cutting budgets. As I constantly tell my 8-year-old son: You’ve got to pick your moments.
If you as a team member want empathy from your leader, you need to extend it to them as well. Not everything can fall into a neat little box or be easy when times are tough, as they are right now in our economic uncertain times. Yes, stand up for yourself, set boundaries, take care of your mental health.
All of us – leaders and workers – can show resilience. Show savvy. Show empathy.
We need to do the jobs we were hired to do – the company can’t perform and succeed if we don’t. And we can be good teammates in a crisis. That might mean doing a bit more than expected, hopefully for a short period of time. But DO THE WORK.
If the work is too much, your skills are up to snuff, or you are simply overwhelmed – have THAT conversation with your manager. Find a way to solve the issues. Ask for help reprioritizing. Come up with creative solutions. Yes, maybe even work a few late nights to help your team through. Or perhaps, think about if you are really in the right role. I’m calling foul on those who use “lack of empathy” as a weapon when they simply can’t or won’t do the work – or won’t even temporarily do a little extra when tough times call for it.
Empathy is not just a leader’s job. It’s the job of everyone on the team to be empathetic to every human on the team – and that includes empathy for the leader.
Photo credit: Ivan Aleksic