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The First Sign You're Not Leading with Empathy

How we approach others can either shut people down or deeply engage them. Often, we play a role rather than show up as our authentic selves, wearing different masks for home, friends, and work so we can be seen in a certain way. Many leaders, particularly those tied to yesterday’s leadership styles, like to be seen as “the boss.” If you’re a leader who is requiring your people to return to the office rather than giving them a choice to return or work remotely or in a hybrid arrangement, it’s the first sign you’re not leading with empathy, which is what the best leaders do and what today’s employees want. 

A leader’s job is not simply to manage talent. You are there to ensure working for you is part of a rewarding life for your people, helping them make good decisions and successfully move along in their journey. The investment you make in your people will come back to you and your business manyfold. When your investment begins with empathy, you’ll understand the many personal reasons people prefer to work from anywhere they choose. It could be lack of affordable childcare, looking after an elderly parent or disabled relative, a physical ailment or illness that makes it difficult to be in an office, missing important family events, a lengthy commute, or so much more. Leading with empathy means appreciating that your employees are whole people with many aspects to their lives. Given that understanding, plus proven research that people are at least as productive working from home as in the office, effective leaders dare to show employees that they care about them on a human level. They give them the choice to work in the way that is best for them—and they know that what works best for employees makes good business sense. 

What Leading with Empathy Looks Like 

Forget about You 

Showing empathy is about them, not you. Most people don’t know how to truly understand someone else’s point of view without letting their own thoughts, opinions, and emotions get in the way. We sit in our own place of judgment rather than using empathy as a bridge to understand and connect. It can be especially hard for leaders stuck in hierarchical thinking to step onto that bridge. 

Empathic leaders take time to listen, walk in others’ shoes, and share feelings. This is not about sugar coating, solving problems, or having to agree. It’s meeting people in the present and providing them with what they need in this moment. It’s connecting with people on deeper levels as leaders shift from focusing on what people do to why they do it. 

Share Your Vulnerabilities 

No one can see what you’ve experienced in your life, nor can you see what others have been through—or the effects of it. Opening up and sharing more about who you are on a personal level wasn’t something leaders used to think about, much less do. Leaders with the courage to show their vulnerabilities build more trusting relationships that make both leader and employee more human and more productive.  

You will have people on your team who have a jaded view of life, difficulty trusting, or a fear of being vulnerable. And maybe this is you. To lead with empathy, get beyond the first layer of nicety, the façade we all walk around with. Lead with your willingness to dig deep, listen, and model mutual support.  

Dare to Care 

People feel your empathy when you lead with transparency, fairness, and respect—ensuring that all points of view are heard. They know you care when you notice that they are behaving differently than normal and you pause, observe, and ask how you can be helpful, opening the door for conversation. Leading with empathy is about holding up the mirror for others to see themselves in a mindset of growth and support. As a leader, if you care about where your employees are going on their journey, you will want to be the mirror for them and have your employees do the same for you.  

The good news is we are all in this together. Leaders no longer have to feel like they’re walking alone. You do not have to have all the answers. Make that okay for yourself. Ensure everyone feels heard and supported, which means letting them choose how and where they work for you. That’s a sure sign you’ve become an empathic leader. And save some of that empathy for yourself. You’re also a whole person with many aspects to your life—and the most critical part of your team. 

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