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Why Empathetic Leadership Is More than Just Lip Service

Let’s be real — 2021 hasn’t exactly been easy. Even after the craziness of 2020, this year has had its own unique set of challenges, and we’re just starting to begin to unpack the effects of the collective trauma we’ve all experienced due to the ongoing pandemic. The continued stress and uncertainty are affecting people in a variety of ways — everything from what we’re dreaming about to worsening burnout at work. And no matter how adept we’ve become at adapting, being in a constant state of change is simply exhausting — mentally, physically and emotionally. 

Regrettably, 9 out of 10 managers say they’re not worried about employee burnout, yet they should be. As leaders, we can’t ignore that our teams are dealing with a lot right now. Our “new normal” is not normal, and we need to recognize and understand that. If we want to truly help our colleagues and peers not only make it through these challenging times but also bring out their best, there’s one virtue we must all tap into — empathy. 

Empathy goes beyond simply saying you care about another person. It means caring for the individual by understanding their feelings, their perspectives and their needs. As author David Foster Wallace so eloquently stated in his commencement speech at Kenyon College in 2005, empathy is also realizing we are not “the absolute center of the universe” and stepping outside our natural default setting. 

In business, empathy means valuing coworkers beyond just the value they bring to the company. It’s appreciating the person and allowing them the space to bring their full selves to work. This is the key to building trust among teams and greater work/life balance. Empathy is so powerful that 90% of U.S. workers believe empathetic leadership fuels greater job satisfaction, and nearly 80% say it decreases employee turnover. 

Showing someone empathy doesn’t have to be overly complicated or calculated. It merely has to be genuine. I like to send short notes to my team members and ask, “How’s it going with this project?” or “How are you doing? Is there anything I can do to make your job easier?” I then take the time to really listen to their answers and discuss ways we in leadership can help them excel. Whether it’s providing advice or investing in new resources or development courses, my goal is always to help my team feel valued, appreciated and supported so they can thrive, both personally and professionally. 

Over the past year, we’ve added 15 people to our team at The 180 Group and have expanded to a team of 23. Before our recent growth, I was able to talk to every single person in our company every day — and I loved it! I now, unfortunately, can go more than a week without talking to certain people, and that bothers me. I know everyone is busy — and so am I — which is why it’s imperative that I make a conscious effort to make time for everyone who wants and needs to speak with me and find opportunities to reach out to them when I can. 

One way I personally do this is through the business communication platform Slack. I can direct message anyone in our company at any time, but if I don’t send or receive a message from a specific team member in a few days, that person disappears from my list of contacts. Because everyone at our company is important to me, I want to see everyone listed there. So when they fall off that list, it reminds me to send them a message and put them back on it.

I know it can be impossible for those leading much larger groups to talk to every single person in their companies daily. However, occasional notes from and check-ins with managers and members of the leadership team can go a long way in forming better and more personal bonds. We must remember that people want to be heard, listened to and asked what they think. As leaders, our ultimate goal should be to spend more time listening than talking and inviting open communication. 

For some, empathy comes naturally. For others, it takes practice and hard work. I fully admit I wasn’t the best at showing empathy when I was younger; that changed when I met my wife and became a husband and father. The more I experienced in life, the more I understood and learned, and every new experience and relationship taught me how to be a more empathetic person. Becoming President and CEO of The 180 Group earlier this year has also taught me how to be a more empathetic coach, especially when we’re in stressful live event mode and working long, 12-hour days. 

Burnout is real, and uncertainty is scary. Let’s be kind to ourselves and one another and let empathy guide our actions now and in the new year.

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