When things go wrong on your team, when emotions come to a boil, how do you react?
Do you single out individuals? Do you start demanding answers? Or do you first take the time to understand how things went wrong before you single out or demand answers? Tread carefully, because this is what will define you as a leader.
If there is one trait that goes straight to the heart of what defines a strong leader, it is empathy. Empathy is the one trait that strikes an emotional cord between the leader and their teams. You don’t need to be socially connected to your team as a leader to practice empathy, because as it so happens, we are wired to be empathetic from the day we are born. As Simon Sinek points out in Leaders Eat Last, empathy is central to our survival as a species since the days when we were hunting and foraging as cave people. Without empathy binding our tribes, humanity as we know it would have never emerged.
A typical response to the need for empathising with your team members is to shy away, because most of us are uncomfortable dealing with emotions, especially in a professional setup. One possible reason is that we believe empathising requires developing a special bond with your fellow employee. This cannot be further from the truth. In most cases, empathising is really just as easy as these 8 steps -
- Sense the emotional turmoil the fellow employee is undergoing. Are they angry, or just irritated? Do they feel disappointed, or let down?
- Record your observations about their emotional state by confirming. “I sense you are gravely disappointed”.
- Wait as this opens the door for a conversation. If the fellow employee backs off and denies this emotional state, you back off as well. If instead they agree or clarify their emotional state, you have a foot in the door.
- Guess, based on what you might already know situationally, what might be behind this state of mind. Make sure this is an educated guess. “Is it because you expected a greater reward for the work you have put in?”
- Converse so you either affirm your guess or lead toward the reasons behind this state of mind. If nothing else works, try - “Can we talk about what has led you to be so gravely disappointed?”
- Relate to those reasons to help your fellow employee accept the turmoil they are going through. “I can see how this might have hurt you deeply”. Accepting emotions allows one to realise they are human. It allows them to stop fighting those emotions and move toward resolutions.
- Understand how we got here. There is usually a chain of events leading to this particular reaction. Somewhere in that chain, lies the crux of the problem.
- Resolve to work toward a solution that works for everyone. At times, the resolution is not obvious and requires further break-out discussions. "Give me some time to get other perspectives on this." On other occasions, there is no need to solve anything because empathising already led to the right frame of mind to help this person solve it themselves.
When we watch 3-year-olds sense emotions and empathise with their irate parents, there is no reason why we as adult leaders cannot do the same with our stressed-out teams. When it’s really so straightforward, and really so natural for most of us, not practising empathy to understand before acting, is just lazy.