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Yes, You Can Be an Empathetic Leader

Person with hands on another person's shoulders

Earlier this week, I came across this LinkedIn post from Matt Higgins spotlighting Daymond John talking about empathetic leadership. Throughout the week, a few more people shared the post with me. Every time I watched it, I was reminded that empathy is a non-negotiable as a leader. Empathic leadership is a topic you’ve heard me muse on before, and as the pandemic continues, I see the need for empathy exponentially increase. 

The SNoW Co. team gets the opportunity to see firsthand how so many companies are navigating these incredibly difficult times and the resulting impact their approach has on their team members. The prolonged exposure to stress we are all navigating  can directly impact our productivity, creativity, collaboration and engagement. Now, five months in, a pattern is emerging. On one side we see organizations where employees are questioning if this is the right company to be at or right leader to work for long term. They are searching out other job opportunities. On the other side, we see organizations where we hear things like, “I feel so fortunate to work here right now.” “This is why this is such a great company.” We see the team members giving their all at work. Though their gas tanks may not be as full as they were in January, they are still engaged in work and creating new ways to keep moving the business forward.

While there are various factors that influence how people feel about their work, there is one overwhelming and consistent element. Something that is fully within the control of the leader: care. Do team members feel that their leader and company cares for them?

This is a pattern we’ve witnessed time and time again. When people feel heard, feel cared about, feel validated as a whole human, they are far more likely to turn around and give as much as they can give. It can be easy to see empathy and being a leader as an either/or situation. You can either care about your employees or hold them accountable for productivity. You can honor their human experience, or you can drive performance. But great leaders understand it is an “and” situation. You can care and be candid. You can be empathetic and hold someone accountable. You can make accommodations and push towards goals. 

What I appreciate about Daymond’s example is that on the surface it could look like a straightforward performance issue of showing up late. Empathy requires compassionate curiosity, a willingness to consider there may be more to the story than we may see. Yes, there may be times when the story behind the behavior doesn’t warrant accommodations or needs a more candid conversation. But if we assume instead of ask we will miss those moments when a story needs to be heard. 

“Empathy isn’t just listening, it’s asking the questions whose answers need to be listened to. Empathy requires inquiry as much as imagination. Empathy requires knowing you know nothing. Empathy means acknowledging a horizon of context that extends perpetually beyond what you can see.”

-Leslie Jamison

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