Why Empathy in Leadership Matters


Leading with Empathy, November 2020 Feature

A 2019 study conducted by Businessolver shows that, although 80% of employees believe that organizations need to be more empathetic, only 57% of CEOs believe empathy is essential to their success.

As you can see, there’s a big gap.

Maybe you aren’t aware of how reliable this quality is. Can you recall a time when you’ve gone up to someone, perhaps your director, supervisor or team lead? You tell them the issue, pour out your heart, and their response is somewhere along the lines of, “I don’t care,” “get it done,” or even worse, “go away!” The same study also shows that 82% of employees would leave their jobs for an organization that displays more empathy toward their needs.

Still not convinced? Let me tell you a story about empathy in leadership and its outcomes.

A team member is screaming into her cellphone in the hallway, then runs back into the office, grabs her belongings and takes off. This is not the first time this has happened—and each time, the unplanned absence places additional strain on our call center to meet our service level agreement.

Through the grapevine, I heard and later confirmed that the agent had some problems at home, more specifically, trouble with her child’s school. Leaving our baggage at the door when we come to work can be easier said than done. I’ve noticed that team leads, supervisors, managers, directors and others often expect it from their agents, but they have a tough time practicing what they preach. In this case, the call center can’t have this happen again, so the agent and her supervisor have a meeting—you know, one of those uncomfortable ones where tensions run high. The agent says, “I know why we’re here, but my family comes first. I understand that if it happens again, I will get into trouble.”

The supervisor says, “I understand how you feel. I have a family of my own, and if my kids needed help, I would do my best to take care of them. I hope you can also understand why we’re here, and why we don’t want this happening again. We don’t want to lose you since we appreciate your efforts.”

The agent responds with, “I promise that this won’t happen again. I like working here. But when the school calls me, I don’t know what to do, and I feel I need to take care of it right away.”

Supervisor responds, “I believe you, so let’s think of a back-up plan just in case it does happen again.” The supervisor provides the agent with details about the company’s employee assistance program (EAP), and helps the agent come up with a contingency plan by asking thoughtful questions such as: “If this happens again, do you have someone you trust who can help you out until you get off of work?” “If this person isn’t available at the time, who else do you have in mind who could help, and whom you trust?” “Is there a possibility to have a word with the school?”

In the story, the supervisor was me. After a month or so, the team member told me that her child was doing much better and had been enrolled in an after-school program that the child enjoys and which keeps them more engaged.

The Businessolver study reported that 78% of employees said they would work longer hours for a leader who displayed empathy. When this issue occurred, I could have emphasized the attendance policy’s expectations, which the agent was already aware of, and warned her that I would have to move her through the disciplinary attendance process the next time it happened. Reemphasizing the attendance policy would have kept the meeting short, to the point, and would have reduced the agent’s time off the phones.

However, by only putting in a minimal effort, I would have added to the agent’s frustration and probably would not have been able to retain her, which adds no value to the business. By taking the time to listen and understand why she was having attendance issues, demonstrating empathy for her situation, providing the EAP details and allowing the agent to formulate her own plan, we were able to not only retain the agent, who has now been with the call center for over two years, and also turn her into one of our top performers.

The following are a few tips that I have learned and have applied on the job to make a difference in some else’s life through empathy:

  • Listen. Quiet your mental chatter, and do not formulate a response while the other person is talking.
  • Acknowledge and paraphrase. Sum up what you’ve understood from the conversation.
  • Label your feelings. Try to name the emotions you’re feeling so that you can recognize them, control them and develop a better connection with the person.
  • Timing. It’s vital to have a conversation while the issue is still fresh.
  • Talk less. Remember, this meeting isn’t about you. Focus on the other person. You’re just there to guide them, understand what’s happening, and keep things on track.
  • Help when possible. We don’t have the answers to everything and we can’t help everyone, but sometimes simply taking a moment to listen is all it takes to provide support and show you care.
  • Follow up. This can be a quick conversation to see how things are going and whether an additional meeting is needed.

Lastly, and maybe you’ve been asked this question before, what’s the difference between a leader and a manager? I believe it’s empathy!