How To Be An Empathetic Leader (Without Getting Walked All Over)


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Empathy is often considered one of the most important skills for today’s leaders. This makes sense, considering people need and want a leader who understands them and seems to care directly about their long-term needs.

While empathy is a must-have skill, there’s also a point of going too far. If you don’t have some limitations and rules in place, you’ll get walked all over, and your ability to stand as a business leader becomes shaded. The hard part of being an effective leader is knowing where the line is drawn in the sand to determine what’s beneficial and what may not be.

Consider a study by Catalyst that found that employees with an empathetic leader were more innovative (61%), more engaged (76%) and less likely to leave the company for another opportunity (57%). You can be an empathetic leader with boundaries that help you avoid burnout and more successfully lead employees to do their best.

Empathy in leaders is a powerful tool, but you lose your potency as a leader if you don’t have some benchmarks or parameters in place that allow you to make definitive decisions. When employees do not follow the performance expectations, it’s essential to do more than just have empathy.

As the CEO of Carbliss, leading over 40 team members and scaling to over 8 figures in 3 years, I’ve encountered many situations where empathy has made incredible differences in project outcomes. Yet, at the same time, you can only lead with empathy when it comes with some limitations.

You need to have a culture of transparency and a track record of trust with your employees. Then, when you make these kinds of outlier hard decisions, the team’s culture doesn’t suffer too much. Instead, your team rallies around you and understands your line of reasoning.

Creating this type of culture within your organization requires work, and it’s not always a simple, direct process. As a leader with years of success wading through the good (and the bad) situations with an empathetic leadership style, I can certainly tell you what to do and what not to do. Here is the three-step protocol we employ to achieve results.

Related: The Crucial Business Strategy All Leaders Must Master to Be Successful

1. Seek to understand

It’s a misconception that people want to take advantage of empathetic leaders. In fact, it’s more common that the leader doesn’t understand the employee’s underlying concern or need in these situations.

Instead, seek to understand. Have an initial conversation and create a framework within that conversation that allows you to structure decision-making. Here’s an example:

“Thanks for speaking with me today. Before we begin, I want to be absolutely clear about one thing. This “INCIDENT DESCRIPTION” is not an automatic bar to employment with our company. Do you remember that previous conversation we had on “DATE” about this incident?…”

“The purpose of our discussion today is to address additional information we have learned since that conversation. We expect you to answer our questions with honesty because you are an employee here. If you’re dishonest or refuse to answer, we may terminate your employment based on that dishonesty. Do you understand that?”

Related: The Dangers of Being an Empathetic Leader

2. Trust but verify

As Ronald Reagan famously said, another core component of the process is not to simply rely on what’s being told to you but to go further. You wouldn’t decide to buy a competitor just because they say they’re profitable. You wouldn’t choose a product based on the marketing promise. Apply that same strategy to these conversations.

Do your due diligence. Sometimes, you may need to go to your legal advocacy team, your human resource managers, or even a colleague to discuss what occurred. Look for further verification of what your conversation was, what occurred, and what the facts of this incident really are. Make sure to rely on facts.

3. Exceptions you allow is the culture you create

Set expectations and stick to them. If you are not clear and transparent or you establish rules you don’t hold your team to, that reduces your effectiveness as a leader. Here’s an example.

You have nine people who work hard for you, often staying later than they are required to get the job done. They’re on time every single day. You trust them to be there, giving their all. One other person shows up five minutes late every day and is ready to leave five minutes early.

What does this create within your culture? That one person is showing others that you are willing to let things slide. The result is that the other nine high performers show up later, stay less often, and slide by because “Johnny’s doing it.” Allowing that one person to overstep the boundaries you set – whatever those boundaries are – encourages others to believe that you’re okay with that and that the behavior is acceptable because it’s an exception you are allowing

In such situations, you have to step up to the plate immediately. That means intervening with the team member who’s sidestepping the rules early on. Get to the bottom of the problem right away. Give that person the opportunity to do the right thing. Those team members who don’t make changes may not be the right fit.



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