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When people talk about being a good leader, they often mention empathy. In fact, some of the greatest leaders I know describe empathy as one of the most important skills in a manager’s toolbox. But what does empathy really mean in this context?  And if you are in a leadership role, how do you know if you are empathetic enough?

As I was building the curriculum for our Management Essentials Workshop, I was thinking a lot about empathy. I wanted to talk about empathy, but I wanted to do it in a way that was actionable and meaningful. So I decided to tell a story…


It all began with an absence note

When I was growing up, I was a straight-A student. I have always been the type-A overachiever, and I cared a lot about doing well in school. I would never miss school, unless I had a good reason. Well I got sick one day, and ended up missing class.

The next day, I knew I needed an absence note, but because my mom worked nights as a waitress in a casino, she wasn’t home from work when I had to leave for class. But since I was such a good student and seldom sick, I didn’t worry too much about it and figured I would just explain the circumstances once I got there.

Well… the women in charge of administration and collecting absence notes would have none of it. She didn’t care about my attendance record, or the fact that I was a good student. I didn’t have the note and that meant I had to have detention.

That was it; it was the school policy and there was nothing she could do.  If you don’t have a note, it is considered cutting class and you get detention.

I can remember that day sitting in detention and I kept thinking about how frustrating it was that this woman demanded I go to detention. I didn’t understand why she couldn’t make an exception, and I remember feeling frustrated by her a stupid women trying to wield her little bit of power over me.

Of course, now in retrospect I realize how narrow minded my thinking was about her role.

There was probably really good reasons why I had to have an absent note (like state regulations, etc.). And I am sure in her role, her performance was being judged on how well she carried out her responsibilities. Maybe there was even a time when she made an exception to the absence note rule and was reprimanded for doing so.

That is the thing about bureaucracy: it is usually born from a reason. And most employees are trying to do a good job at what they have been asked to do. They are carrying out their roles in a way that fits with how their performance is judged and measured.

If I had thought about her side of the equation, I might have been a bit more empathetic and understanding – even though missing my note landed me in detention.

But that is the point: empathy matters most when it’s hard to do. tweet this!

It’s easy to be nice to people that you already like and trust, but the value of empathy comes out in the moments when you see can see through the other person’s eyes even when they seem totally wrong.

empathy matters most when it's hard to


Why is empathy important?

According to Merriam-Webster, empathy is “the feeling that you understand and share another person’s feelings and emotions.”

Empathy is a critical skill for any leader, because you aren’t just working on projects for companies, you are working with people. In order to inspire and motivate, collaborate and cooperate, and make great things happen if you have understand the people around you.

In school you learn the golden rule – to treat others how you want to be treated – and really that is the heart of empathy. It creates a connection between people and being empathetic will make you much more effective at working in teams, navigating organizations, and bringing the best out of those around you.

Here are some great articles on the importance of empathy if you still need more convincing. ;)


How to be more empathetic

There are lots of ways to practice empathy. Any time you find yourself judging someone else or thinking about how they act in a negative way, try to put yourself in their place and think through the reasons they may be acting that way. Perhaps there is something you don’t know that is driving their behavior.

I know that over the years I have had to learn to practice empathy. Here are some of the lessons I had to learn the hard way…

Never ask people to do something you wouldn’t do yourself. 

I can remember when I first started working on a new team and the manager had asked the whole team to work the weekend. Then that same weekend he went wine tasting. I remember sitting in the back corner of the room (I was brand new to the team so there wasn’t much for me to do to help out) and hearing everyone complain about what a terrible manager he was to make them sacrifice their weekend while he was out having a good time.

Whether it is asking people to be on-call, perform grunt work, or put in nights and weekends to make a launch date, make sure that you are willing to make those same concessions alongside your team.

If someone complains to you, try to understand the why behind it. 

While it is important not to commiserate when someone complains (it is almost always better to take a positive solutions-focused response), don’t dismiss someone else’s concerns. Try to listen, ask good questions and get to the reason motivating their complaint. When you understand their “why” then you will be equipped to help them solve their problem, or perhaps just reframe it a little differently.

If someone seems hostile or terse, don’t assume it is you.

Before you take it personally, cut them a little slack. Maybe they are under pressure or stressed out about things at the office, or even outside of work in their personal life. When someone snaps at you, or gives you the cold shoulder, it is easy to assume that they are upset with you for some reason.

We like to think we are the center of the universe and if someone is acting some way towards us, then it is our fault. However, especially in close relationships, that isn’t usually the case. When you spend enough time with someone (like a partner, or coworker) inevitably they are going to have a bad day.  So when that happens, be a little nicer to them instead of defaulting to being defensive or hurt.

Know when to make exceptions to the rules.

Rules are made for a reason. However, when you are in a position of authority, sometimes it is important to make exceptions. For example, most companies don’t have pet bereavement policies, but to some people losing a pet is a painful as losing a child.

If that happened to someone who worked for you, wouldn’t you want to allow enough time to grieve and come back to work productive?  Part of being a good leader is knowing when a rule doesn’t make sense for your people.

Develop your listening skills. 

In his book, Silent Messages, Albert Mehrabian, a UCLA professor, says that 93% of all communication is non-verbal. However, not all of these cues are obvious. If you aren’t paying attention to the other person’s facial expressions, body language, and tone, you may be missing what is really being communicated.

Learn to be a good listener. Pay attention to what someone says, and how they say it. If you want to understand other people, you have to learn to listen and really hear their messages.

Be proactive and touch base regularly.

If there are people who are important to you – your coworkers, your friends, or even your kids – make sure you are touching base with them regularly to check on them and their feelings. Ask “Are you OK?” and really listen to their reply. Check on them and ask how they are before things become problematic.

If someone isn’t acting normal (for example, they seem more withdrawn or distracted), don’t wait to ask about what’s going on. Pull them aside and just check in. These small proactive conversations can help uncover potential issues, before they snowball into bigger problems.

Hopefully these strategies give you some ideas on how to be more empathetic. Developing this skill will make you a better leader, and someone that people like having on their team. Learning to see the world through the eyes of others, will make you more understanding – you will communicate better, be more thoughtful, and bring out the best in those around you.




When you’re a first-time manager, there is a lot to learn — and you’ve got to learn it fast. Get the key skills you need to shine as a manager, from leading a team to setting a vision and achieving big picture goals.




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Tags: communication, empathy, leadership, reflection, relationships, trust,

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