Three ways to develop empathy as a leader

How well do you know your employees?

As leaders become more senior in the company, they tend to be more removed from employees, customers, and front-line work.

But stepping into your employees’ shoes to truly understand what it’s like to work at your company can provide crucial insights into processes, culture, and the overall employee experience.

Scott Cutler, CEO of StockX, did just that when he intentionally leaned into empathy and uncovered what it was like to work at his company. He realized the pandemic and other issues impacted teams worldwide differently and wanted to know how he could help.

Scott realizes that being empathetic wasn't his natural state as a leader, but through intentional effort and support, he could show up for his employees in a new way.

"Having to do that in a more empathetic way was an example of something that I needed from a personal development perspective, but it was also required of me as a leader," Scott said. "Had I not [focused on empathy], I would've lost followership in my leadership team and probably in the company as well.”

As leaders push beyond their office walls to see things from their employees’ and customers’ perspectives, they unlock new insights about the company. They can discover challenges and opportunities they may have never known existed.

Empathy is about understanding each individual, not just the group as a whole. When leaders understand where people are coming from, they can better lead them and be more aligned with their motivations, goals, and challenges.

For many leaders, understanding employees individually distracts from the work that moves the needle. However, Scott and other leaders argue that being more connected, empathetic, and understanding helps teams perform better and move faster. Investing time into empathy builds solid foundations and relationships, creating a more collaborative and cohesive culture between employees and leaders.

How can leaders practice empathy and build those individual connections with employees? Consider these suggestions:

1. MBWA, Manage by Wandering Around

The term was coined by management expert Tom Peters and shows the value of being in touch with employees and customers. Leaders need to get out of the office and go where the work is being done regularly. The more time leaders spend on the ground, wandering around, the better sense they have of what it’s like to work at and do business with their company.

2. Get your hands dirty

Walking around is one thing; engaging in the work is another. Many great leaders spend shifts working among their employees, from Starbucks CEO Laxman Narasimhan regularly spending time working as a barista to former DaVita CEO Kent Thiry working in dialysis treatment centers (and requiring senior leaders to do the same). Stepping into an employee’s shoes builds empathy as leaders truly experience the job.

3. Practice active listening

Never miss a chance to listen in front-line interactions, meetings, and phone calls. Practicing active listening without judgment allows people to speak freely so that leaders can learn about their true feelings and motivations. When leaders listen, they learn what employees really think, not what leaders think they think.

Developing empathy takes time and effort but can lead to great rewards of a strong culture, more engagement, and better connections.

Written by

Michelle Kaiser
Michelle Kaiser

Senior Editor |

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