Empathy – the ability to put yourself in someone else’s shoes and see things from their perspective – is a critical skill in leadership (and it can be very difficult, as hilariously illustrated in this video I blogged about last year). As a leader, if you are empathetic, you will get more things done through other people. Let me give you a recent example, narrated to me by a client who is a sales manager in an office furnishings company.
This manager was discussing with one of his employees an upcoming planned sales visit with a potential client. The employee seemed reluctant to attend the sales presentation, and several times suggested that the visit would be more effective if it was delayed to the following week. However, this was a high-profile opportunity, and the manager did not want to delay the visit, so continued to push for haste. But, as he told me, several minutes into the conversation, it occurred to him to ask “Is there a reason you think we should delay this visit?” After some reluctance, the employee finally admitted that the present week was a difficult one for him as it was the first anniversary of his mother’s passing, and he was worried that he might not put his best foot forward. This caused this leader to completely change his approach! “The moment I put myself in my employee’s shoes, I realized how difficult this week would be for him. So I phrased things differently,” he said to me. What he said to his employee next was “This week must be really difficult for you given your personal situation. If you’re not comfortable making this sales call, I understand. But if you think you’d like to proceed, I can accompany you on this visit.” Paradoxically, this change in approach actually resulted in the employee agreeing to make the sales visit that week as the manager had originally hoped.
Here’s what my client said to me. “The moment I exercised empathy, three things happened. First, I learned information that I wouldn’t have otherwise. Second, by putting myself in my employee’s shoes, I truly understood how tough the current situation was for him, and it allowed me to offer different alternatives. And third, my empathy suddenly switched our interaction from adversarial to collaborative. My employee wasn’t pushing back at me anymore; in fact, he was now trying to find a mutually acceptable situation. Gosh Merge, this empathy thing really works!”
So … does this empathy thing really work? What has been your experience? I would love to hear your examples, both positive as well as negative. Please comment below.