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Empathy: The Partner to Vulnerability-Based Leadership

Updated: Nov 20, 2023

As I continue my journey in vulnerability-based leadership, I have been thinking a lot about empathy. In my mind, as we share our vulnerabilities with others, we also have to be able to hear and respond when others share with us. This is where empathy comes in. Empathy is the ability to understand and share the feelings of others.

Empathy is a funny thing: it is easy for some and elusive to others, it is embraced and shunned in the workplace, and it can make or break relationships. In spite of all this, I believe it is critical to creating a psychologically safe space that allows vulnerability, risk-taking and failure.

Workplace cultures can stand in the way of showing up with empathy. cultures that focus solely on bottom lines, success-at-all-costs, and create fear will not have empathy freely expressed. But as businesses look at retention, human capital and employee engagement, it is clear empathy is a critical component to a successful work culture.

So how do we start that cultural transformation? Here are a few steps I take to create a space where empathy is embraced and shared freely:

  • Honor the person first, the employee second: this is one of my truths in leadership and it has never steered me wrong. prioritizing employee’s personal lives is an important way to show empathy, especially when there are issues or hardships. This does not mean we don’t hold staff accountable for work, but when you honor their personal lives, you will most always get more discretionary effort in return. It’s a win-win!

  • Be a great listener: Having the ability to listen with the intent to understand takes practice and intent. Eye contact, no distractions, and hearing to understand what is most important are a few skills required. It’s easy to fall back into the habit of listening to respond. Knowing how to listen, pause and take time to understand will go a long way.

  • ·Get to really know your employees- make a personal connection and nurture that relationship often. Small talk is important. Asking about them, their family, their interests will create a space of appreciation. It then allows your empathy to come through more naturally.

  • Share your life: Sharing what’s happening outside of work for you is such a valuable way to connect. It helps those around you know you better and makes you more relatable. And when things come up for you, empathy will come back to you.

  • Be able to share, but also protect: so, while the ability to share their experiences and feelings is a key component of empathy, it can also cause us to carry other’s loads. Make sure you have safe boundaries for yourself so you can support others without burning yourself out.

  • Know when to suggest help: Lastly, showing empathy is one thing, but you do not need to fix everything. As a leader, it’s important to know when you suggest professional help. Most organizations have a comprehensive employee assistance program that offers a wide range of services. If you don’t have one, you can call 2-1-1 or your town’s social services for resources.

I have been amazed over and over again at how small acts of empathy can go along way for building a safe, trusting team who genuinely cares for each other, both professionally and personally. Empathy across teams leads to more productivity, better idea generation and innovation, and improved teamwork. When you create an empathetic space, you will see your teams work together, help each other, and raise each other up. How will you create an empathetic space?

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