How to be a more empathetic leader, from executives

No matter how many degrees you earned or subjects you master, there are some skills that are best learned through experience. As professionals develop their careers and rise to leadership positions, some demands of management are second-nature, while others may take time to fully cultivate. One of the most overlooked but most important qualities of leading a team of people is empathy.

As the chief talent officer of MONO Julie Vessel explains, an empathetic leader means you see people as, well people. Not as consumers, employees or clients — but as human beings with emotions, ideas, values, and opinions.

“Empathetic leaders look at all things through the context of people: people who have feelings, lives, aspirations, struggles, strengths, and imperfections,” she continues. “To an empathetic leader, people are not just a resource to be managed or optimized.

“Rather, they understand that people are the most valuable asset in a company. And like anything valuable, they see the importance of understanding, protecting, nurturing and building the value of that asset. It’s personal.”

Maintaining budgets, remaining organized, providing constructive reviews and being generous with salaries and other perks is all part of your job description, which might make you wonder why adding another requirement is so essential.

Jim Ayres, the managing director of Amway North America explains this interpersonal proficiency allows you to forge stronger — and more meaningful — connections to those around you, based on trust and understanding. Not only does this making working more enjoyable, but it helps employees to invest more deeply in their jobs because they feel supported. And inevitably, this means a higher level of performance.

For 2019, make empathy a top priority. Here, 9 executives share their best strategies for getting started:

Create customized employment packages

While creating streamlined interviewing and hiring processes allows your company to bring on new people quickly, the same old offer letter and benefits explanation shouldn’t be divvied out to every single person. One of the ways to start an employee’s experience with your company out on an empathetic foot is to evaluate their unique needs from the moment you invite them to join your company, according to Lindsay Myers, the founder of Concrete Blonde Consulting.

“Take the talent’s priorities into account when putting together employment packages. Different people value different assets,” she explains. “One person may want flexible hours while another cares more about vacation time.

“Realize that taking people’s feelings into account isn’t a one-size-fits-all solution. People are individuals and treating them as such will ensure stronger outcomes.”

Take a long-term perspective

Executives are not only moving at a heightened pace, but they have a finger or toe in nearly every part of the business. This makes any type of disturbance to workflow feel like a catastrophe at the moment, which can yield some negative reactions. Though it can be difficult when you’re pressed to meet goals right now, CEO and cofounder of ChairmanMom Sarah Lacy urges leaders to see the long-term perspective. Especially when an employee is faking a crossroads or a difficult period, emphasizing with their situation will mean prolonged commitment.

“If an employee needs to, say, take an extended leave, it’s easy to see that as a drain on resources. However, not having to replace that employee will almost always save you more time and money,” she gives as an example. “Be there for your employees and they’ll be there for you. This goes two ways though—good employees also understand what you need. It has to be a give and take.”

Surround yourself with diversity

Part of being able to not only recognize but understand where your employees are coming from is welcoming diversity into your workplace. Anticipating and attracting a large set of customers, after all, requires you have many people on your team who can speak to a demographic background, economic statuses and so on.

“Seek out a diversity of experiences in life, and recruit people with diverse perspectives to be on your team. They will help you uncover your blind spots, identify fresh opportunities and solve problems in innovative ways,” said Christine Andrukonis, president and founder of Notion Consulting.

Cultivate interpersonal relationships

You might believe you know each of your direct-reports but how often do you meet one-on-one with each of them? Do you know what’s happening in their personal lives, including recent celebrations or changes? Ayres explains maintaining old relationships while forging new ones is critical to being an empathetic leader. He suggests scheduling consistent meetings will help to solidify your relationship.

“Every Friday, I choose a different employee to invite to breakfast — often selecting those I don’t see or interact with often, to kick off the day,” he continues. “Being an effective leader means building strong relationships with those you lead and developing a thorough understanding of their needs.

“This is an easy way to gain useful and sometimes surprising insights, which can help you become a more informed leader.”

Work to understand other people’s priorities

Chelsie Lee, the cofounder and CEO of Shipsi, challenges leaders to go through a short exercise to identify some of their empathetic blind spots. First, she says to think back to your first job and list what your top three priorities were. Now, think of your next gig, and do the same. The point of this practice is to realize depending on your stage of life and career, your deal breakers shifted.

“Each person on your team could be coming from a completely different place. Pay attention to that as you interact with them,” she continues. “Though someone might go on and on about something you don’t care about, or urgently call for something incredibly last-minute — understand where they are coming from. Realize and be thankful.

“Notice it’s because they actually give a damn about that project that might seem tiny to you, but it’s a mountain to them.”

Give people your undivided attention

The last time you sat down with your marketing lead, what were you doing? Well, meeting with your marketing, lead right? Probably not. In fact, you likely checked your phone, maybe read some emails, or zoned out thinking about something else. Vessel shares part of being empathetic is giving your employees your undivided attention when you’re meeting with them.

“Leaders can’t truly relate, understand or empathize if they’re distracted or disengaged. If it doesn’t seem like you care, it’s likely that your people won’t care as much either. If you rush and aren’t engaged, they likely won’t be either,” she continues.

So, she recommends stepping away from your phone and laptop. Don’t think about your to-do list, and focus on who is sitting in front of you. “All these little things show you care about them and what they have to say,” she adds.

Listen first. Speak second

Another part of empathetic leadership? Following that rule your grandma suggested many moons ago and remember you have two ears and one mouth for a reason. Or as the CEO of Globoforce Eric Mosley shares, listen first — and speak second.

“Communication is essential to understanding the feelings of others, yet the fast pace of business today, despite all the technological advancements designed to bring us closer together, can sometimes hinder our ability to connect with others,” he shares. “Listening attentively allows you to fully absorb information, process it, and develop a meaningful response.”

This also means you don’t need to go into instant problem-solve mode when your team is facing any issue. Give them support and assistance as they explain their struggles and you can work through it together — rather than speaking over them.

Be cognizant of how your words and actions affect people

While listening will go a long way, you definitely can’t lead a company without, ya know, talking. But when you choose your words to employees, many executives are unaware of how personally and intently they take them to heart, according to the CEO of Basis, Andrew Chapin. Especially when you aren’t being your best self.

“You may be having a bad day or be frustrated by something, but how you act in response reverberates across your team,” he explains. “Being dismissive of someone’s input or not being engaged in a one-on-one meeting can have huge second-order effects on morale and productivity.”

Ask questions

Even if you’re no a bonafide journalist, there’s a lesson you can learn from their way of doing business: questions are meaningful. In fact, cofounder of Thirty Madison, Steven Gutentag explains when you inquire within a conversation, it illustrates you’re invested.

“Part of active listening is watching body language and listening to what’s not being said. That helps me ask better questions and be a more active partner in a conversation. This also helps in building a stronger rapport with everyone on my team, which has helped build more powerful bonds across the company,” he explains.