Something that I’ve been thinking about a lot lately is empathy. What with our political environment and behaviors I’ve witnessed firsthand, I don’t see enough empathy in my personal life, government leadership or in others behaviors. But what do I mean by empathy? I think that Webster’s dictionary sums it up quite nicely:
But what does this have to do with leadership style? And what does this have to do with me? Well I’ve been a manager for a few years now and have had many different leaders that each had their own unique style. When I first started out, I came in pretty hot and heavy. Writing people up left and right, dropping them when their availability strayed from what they had to begin with and merely demanding performance without investing the additional training necessary. To be honest, looking back I was a hot mess. I made a ton of mistakes when it came to the people aspect of my job, but I was performing in other aspects so I didn’t see anything wrong.
Then I got moved to another store and I realized that I needed to modify my behavior if I wanted to see the results I was planning and forecasting for. What was that wake up that I had? #1 my results from the first store were good, but not great. #2 the results at the new store were amazing, but when I took over things went downhill. So clearly this made me feel like it was my fault. There were many factors that were in play, but being the control freak that I am, I took charge of the ones that I could change, mainly my own leadership technique.
So how did I decide that taking a more empathetic approach would be the one that worked best for me? Well it was a lot of trial and error at first. Instead of being hot and heavy like the first store, I backed away almost too much to the point that I became a doormat of a manager. That created an almost “The animals are running the zoo” type of atmosphere and didn’t bring upon the change that I was hoping for. It also did quite a number on me cause I went from one end of the spectrum to the other. It had me questioning my abilities and my place at work. I hate questioning myself, remember: I said I’m a control freak, but I took a little time to do some soul searching to figure that out.
During the trial and error, I was trying to find a healthy balance of firm but fair. I didn’t want to be jumping down people’s throats but I didn’t want to be that limp noodle that anyone could take advantage of either. Also I wanted a workplace that I could go to 40-45 hours a week and have a good time without worrying about offending someone/ having the time drag on. I fully believe that my work environment should be somewhere I want to be with people I want to work with. Otherwise it just makes work a miserable place. I have watched people in my life that I’m close to work jobs they hate with people that are hard on them to the point that they have a hard time enjoying life outside of work. That isn’t something I want for myself.
The easiest way I found to boost moral was to be a listening ear to those around me. Not just that, but one that actually paid attention to what I was being told. Sometimes I’d have to read between the lines to understand that my associate was maybe having a hard time outside of work, or maybe needed some additional training at some aspect of the job to help their confidence level. But I wouldn’t have gained that knowledge without actually listening to what they were telling me. Pairing that with actually wanting to help them, or creating a plan that would ensure they could take care of what they needed to outside of work.
This was and still can be a hard road to navigate. I don’t want to be too immersed in my people’s lives, because at the end of the day I’m still their boss. But I do want them to know that I care about their well-being and not just for the sake of the company. Happy people work better, harder and go above and beyond, but its also fulfilling to me to be able to help them in the specific way they need. Let me give an example:
At a job I once worked, I helped to manage the cosmetics counters especially on busy days when we needed more hands. I hadn’t been specifically trained with that product and honestly my own makeup is nothing special. But I was trying my best to help customers; especially ones that already knew what they were looking for. A customer came up and wanted to do a concealer color match because she hated the way her bags looked under her eyes. I had seen the other girls do it before so I just pretended that I knew what I was doing. In the end we found a color that worked well for her and she put it on her under eye bags right away. She said that she instantly felt like a different woman and was moved to tears.
Besides that being an amazing feeling, helping someone feel better about themselves, I was able to help someone in a way I had never done before. And saw instant results. That’s how I view my empathetic leadership skills. I listen to what they are saying, deduct a solution (sometimes they just need someone to vent to and that’s okay too) and then make a plan to help them get there. But in doing so I’m also putting myself in their shoes, talking to them the way they want to be spoken to.
So how do I make sure I’m using empathy in my daily management style? Well number one, I’m not perfect so sometimes my reactions are not always empathetic. So lately before I react, I give myself a little more time than normal to think about the situation. Did someone that always calls off, call off again? Did someone that has been late repeatedly not show up for a shift? These things are very frustrating in my line of work, so before I get angry I ask more questions.
Then instead of yelling, I do a couple of things. Talk to that person one-on-one and really connect with them first instead of calling attention to the poor performance. Once they are talking and comfortable, usually they will address it themselves. Overall, people don’t want to mess up on purpose. And when they do mess up, they know it. Sometimes there is a one-off situation with a tech issue or communication issue, which usually dissipate any negative reaction immediately.
When the situation is addressed, then an action is put into place. Late for the forth time? Lets change your availability so you can get in here on time. Not helping customers in a way that is conductive to results? Lets spend sometime training together so you can feel more comfortable talking about our product. There is always a solution to a problem, and if I don’t know it, a peer or mentor of mine will.
Tips for Empathetic Leadership
- Listen to those around you.
- Put a plan in place to help them.
- Don’t know the answer to a problem, ask for help.
I should probably note that these are the steps I take, and they might not be for everyone. I’m reading a couple of leadership books that I will most likely be talking about on here that will probably tie in with a bit more professional jargon that what I described above. I think that management is something that ebbs and flows and if you’re not actively trying to better yourself then you’ll become stagnant.
Besides the 1,500 books I’ve found to better myself, what are you reading? I’m trying to use many different strategies, even mindful ones to create a harmonious work environment. Give me some good suggestions!