Empathy, or ‘the ability to understand and share the feelings of another’ is a key ingredient of the emotional intelligence that characterises a good manager. It is all about seeing things from others’ point of view, taking into account their thoughts, views and feelings, and being able to put oneself in their shoes.
Empathy on the part of a manager is a competence that reflects a willingness and ability to connect with others, to understand what they may be experiencing and to demonstrate a genuine interest in and concern for their wellbeing. When people feel that their voices are heard, they feel valued, and this in turn leads them to engage more fully in their work. Without empathy, working relationships remain superficial and many an opportunity to build trust and foster motivation may be lost.
Managers therefore have everything to gain from taking the time to listen to their staff, and this implies really listening actively to them, using empathy to understand what they are thinking or feeling – without trying to change them or argue their points or even solve their problems – and acknowledging this by reflecting back to them an understanding of what they have heard.
By using empathy in this way, managers are able to acknowledge the legitimacy of others’ experience, without necessarily agreeing with them, thus establishing trust and building a rapport that will lead to cooperation and, if needed, a willingness to hear another point of view. Following this, if indeed there is a need for constructive feedback or corrective action, colleagues will be more prepared to listen and even accept responsibility for their actions because their perspective will also have been taken into account.
So what does it take to be more empathetic? And what keeps managers from acting accordingly?
For one thing, it takes time, and managers need to be willing to stop and take the time to care. It also requires a certain degree of self-awareness, including the ability to challenge their own assumptions or point of view. Previous experience may also cause them to have developed a history with the other person that needs to be put aside if they are to look at the present situation with fresh eyes.
Another obstacle, indeed sometimes the most challenging of all, is that managers often feel that if someone shares a problem with them they automatically need to solve it. Rather than demonstrating empathy, however, this says more about themselves and their own need to impress their colleagues, or even simply to be right, and often proves to be counter-productive, as it diminishes the other person instead of helping them to take responsibility for themselves.
In the final analysis, empathy is a choice: managers who choose to take the time to listen, to overcome their own inner bias and to focus on communicating with their staff are managers who value individuals. Moreover, in creating an empathetic environment in this way, managers go a long way towards empowering their colleagues by allowing them to be fully present in the workplace and able to give their best.
Sudeshna Datta Cockerill