Empathy is no longer a “good-to-have” skill for leaders; it has become the “must-have” skill. With the workforce getting slimmer each day, empathy is the boombox you hold over your head to let employees know you’re here for them. More than that, it must demonstrate that you are grateful for their presence.
Like it or not, presence matters. The people who are still showing up to work, no matter how poorly they perform, matter tremendously. Empathy is the first step to helping them pivot in this new slim-fit labor market. Yet another skill must come after empathy to instill passion in your employees again, learning.
There are two types of empathy: cognitive and emotional.
Cognitive empathy places you into the mental state of the employee. An empathetic cognitive leader considers the thought processes of their employees. How do they think about this situation?
Brad is the front-line supervisor in your restaurant, covering shifts for anybody who needs coverage. He never complains. He does what needs to get done to maintain the chaos to a minimum. As Brad’s boss, you see his work ethic and determination. Brad starts to cut corners to be more efficient. Instead of calling out his shortcuts, you take Brad’s mental space and ask yourself, “What am I thinking about when I am taking shortcuts.” You will most likely realize that Brad is taking charge of chaos his way. You know he is a hard worker, but by being short-staffed so much, he is trying to manage that by sacrificing quality.
This mental run-through prepares you for an honest conversation with Brad. You start with, “Brad, thank you for doing all that you do and trying to maintain the chaos we are all facing. I am noticing that you are staying efficient by eliminating some important processes. I want to keep those processes in place to maintain our service quality in these circumstances. Do you have any ideas how we can achieve that?”
You can keep Brad empowered while showcasing your empathy. You took the time to find out how he is thinking about circumstances. And if you are wrong, you now have a perfect window into how he thinks about these shortcuts and can address them appropriately.
Emotional empathy focuses on how your employee feels. Let’s say Brad is the most qualified supervisor you have but want to look outside the company to hire a restaurant manager. First, ask by opening this position, “How is Brad going to feel once he sees this position posted?”
Consider Brad for the position first, and allow him to interview if he is interested. He shouldn’t have to find out after posting the job on Indeed. You will either resentment Brad or force him to quit without notice. This type of empathy will trigger the appropriate response to talk to Brad about this opportunity before the position goes live. Employees do not like to imagine themselves as replaceable. They need to know their presence and intricate work matters, not through pizza parties, but actual merits.
Now even if you are an extremely empathetic leader, the missing piece to the puzzle is your ability to learn from your team and instill a passion for learning in them.
Empathy without learning is like a melody without harmony. It’s beautiful on its own, but it can be so much more.
An empathetic leader must commit to learning from his team. Your team began inventing new processes to accomplish impossible tasks in a fraction of the time you used to have when once fully staffed. Ask for their insight into these processes and how they make the company run better.
Make sure you document those new processes in a centralized location where all of your employees can learn, like a Learning Management System or something similar. Long gone are the days of “knowledge-hoarding.” Demand that your company is one of free knowledge. Eliminate the fear in the hearts of those “secret keepers” that their jobs are in jeopardy if they give their knowledge away. Instead, show them that they are the key to building a new learning culture.
And then, here is the problem: start training your employees on how to be successful. You may have to hire entry-level employees to perform multiple positions. Please give them the right resources to succeed. Give them your time, take them on as an apprentice, or pair them with a mentor even if your business has to slow down because of it.
You don’t have the luxury of sitting back and waiting for a highly self-motivated employee to come along and fulfill your business needs. Now is the time to empathize with employees who do not want to be overworked, underpaid, and unrecognized, all at the cost of their personal lives.
Leaders must tether empathy with sincere learning. Listen to your employee’s wants, needs, and future desires. Teach them how to get there, or at least how they can grow within your company quickly. They are leading you through a crisis, and it’s time you start coaching them through the changes of this rapidly adaptable workforce. Now is the time to create something new and fresh.