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We Had a Front Row Seat to Empathetic Leadership (and It’s NOT What You Might Think)

The past year was filled with articles about the new secret weapon in business leadership: Empathy. This once soft skill in business is now all the rage, changing hearts and minds on how we view people management. Yes, we all know what it means in theory to deeply listen to someone’s issues and put yourself in their shoes, but what does empathetic leadership look like in practice? By practice, we mean ACTION. The positive effects of empathy only go so far without the action of change to back it up for your team. The truest form of empathy compels leadership to act, and this response is a constant commitment for the rare few.

When Forbes announced Empathy is the Most Important Leadership Skill According to Research, we were amid our most rewarding assignment to date, for an empathetic CMO committed to making change. As the Forbes article was posted and re-shared endlessly for weeks, we were coming off a front row seat (literally!) to what empathetic leadership truly looks like in practice, and it’s much more layered and nuanced than research and anecdotal observations suggest.

“Empathy in action is understanding an employee’s struggles and offering to help. It is appreciating a person’s point of view and engaging in a healthy debate that builds to a better solution. It is considering a team member’s perspectives and making a new recommendation that helps achieve greater success. As the popular saying goes, people may not remember what you say, but they will remember how you made them feel.” (Tracy Brower, PhD. “Empathy Is the Most Important Leadership Skill According to Research.” Forbes, Forbes Magazine, 9 Nov. 2022)

This paints a picture of a closed-door office conversation, with management nodding their head in understanding. "Talk to me, I understand." However, in business, there is no empathy without action. As humans, we seek empathy in our closest personal relationships, from our friends, partners and families, but in our professional lives, we seek empathetic leaders who turn that empathy into change. Don’t tell me you heard me. SHOW me you heard me.

The most effective leaders are empathetic change-agents and change-makers.

Let’s re-frame empathetic leadership, to empathetic action.

Healthy discussion is great. Proposed solutions are great. But a commitment to action and results typically rests with the leader, and this is where empathy only goes so far if the leader isn’t fully committed to empathetic action.

The empathetic change-maker who we were fortunate to meet, fully involved their team in the change process, with empathy at the core of every conversation, decision and action. It wasn’t how this leader made people feel, it’s what this leader DID, based on their ability to truly empathize with the struggles of the team, which led to changes that directly impacted the day-to-day work lives of the team. Only then did the team begin to feel hopeful, which of course resulted in positive outcomes on the quality of the work. This empathetic change maker had a commitment to fully understand the role of each person on the team, their day-to-day responsibilities and how they fit within the greater organization, while also vulnerably acknowledging their own gaps in understanding. We were there to help bridge those gaps, but learned so much from this leader in the process. Seeing this empathetic action in practice, was truly a sight to behold!

We’ve seen teams in the past with the same level of mutual respect, however the difference here was that this leader was truly committed to understanding their teams’ roles and concerns and then committed to change what they could immediately, with a dedication to make bigger changes over time in actionable increments. Sweeping action isn’t always possible, but small, incremental change with transparency of commitment to future change, builds trust and says “I heard you and understand you.” in a way that a head-nodding conversation could never do.

In its most basic form, empathetic leadership is often just quickly removing an obstacle that impacts a teams’ ability to do their job well and allows them to rest easier at night. It’s often just asking 2 critical questions: 1. Do I really know and understand what keeps my team up at night? and 2. What can I do to fix that?

Then, just do it. (But keep the team involved along the way.)


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