‘Empathy’: A Forgotten Leadership Trait


Many people don’t associate the word “empathy” with effective leadership.

In fact, ask people to identify the top 10 leadership traits and you won’t get many who put “the ability to understand and share the feelings of others” on that list.

I believe it should go on the list.

Today’s workers don’t blindly follow leaders as they might have in the past. Leadership requires building trust and rapport with others. If employees don’t believe you can understand or see things the way they do, you will not earn their trust.

Empathy is also essential for building long-term relationships with customers. Like employees, customers want to be respected and heard. They want to know that we care about their issues and concerns. And they appreciate it when we take the time to understand their world.

To build empathy with employees:

Expose your thinking.

When you introduce a new idea, plan or initiative, you’ve had plenty of time to discuss it with your management team, work out all the possible scenarios, and thoroughly debate the pros and cons. By the time you announce the plan, you’re convinced it’s the right thing to do.

Employees, however, are usually hearing it for the first time. In addition to the “what” and “how,” they also want to know the “why” and “how we got to this point.” Explaining the assumptions and thought processes that led to your decision helps people understand the “why,” which makes them more open to the new course of action. People also appreciate you taking the time to expose your thinking, which contributes to building trust as well.

Get inside your employees’ world.

To further build trust, have employees expose their thinking. After laying out your plan, ask for their input. For example, “I understand this is new to all of you, and I’d really like to know what you think about it.” As they give their feedback, don’t defend or argue your position. Instead, delve deeper into their thinking by asking, “What leads you to conclude that? Can you help me understand your thinking here? Where did those assumptions come from?”

One of the most powerful and empowering things you can do for employees is to actively solicit their ideas and input and then listen carefully. Today’s employees have a strong need to be respected and heard. Few things do more to fulfill that need than asking them to explain their point of view and how they arrived at it. When people feel respected and heard, trust grows in the relationship.

Asking employees to expose their thinking takes time. It may feel like you’re moving through quicksand when you need to be running fast on solid ground. But getting people’s buy-in, trust, and commitment in this manner always saves time and energy in the long run.

To build empathy with customers:

Put aside your assumptions.

One huge obstacle to developing empathy with customers is what you think you already know about what they want and need. Customer needs change frequently. What you knew to be true a year or even six months ago may already have changed. The next time you talk with a customer, consciously tell yourself, “For the moment, I’m going to forget everything I think I know about this customer and just listen.”

Ask questions.

The best salespeople listen at least 70 percent of the time during a sales call. Put this principle to good use by casting aside your assumptions and asking a lot of questions.

  • What are we not doing well that you would like us to improve on?
  • What else can we offer that would make your job even easier/your company even more successful?
  • Suppose you ran my company. What would you do differently to serve a business like yours?
  • What are we doing well that we should keep doing?
  • When we are a trusted business advisor, what core things are we doing for you?
  • Get inside their world.

Understanding your customer’s world requires more than just a current assessment of the relationship. It also involves taking a peek at the future. Ask questions like:

  • What has changed in your business/market/industry since the last time we talked?
  • What worries you about where your market or industry is headed?
  • Where are the biggest opportunities for your business in the next year or two?
  • What is the biggest threat to your business? How can we help?
  • What could we be doing now to help you adjust to new market realities?
  • Spend time to look for data on industry trends and shifts that are happening in your customers’ world, including with their competitors. Share information with them.

Ask your customer to expose their thinking.

As customers respond to your questions, they will likely give you “what” and “how” answers. To gain a deeper understanding of their world, ask them to explain the “why” as well. Ask them to identify the assumptions that lead them to see the world the way they do. This will provide greater insight into your customers’ needs while also strengthening the relationship.

Change your perspective to meet their needs.

Depending on what customers say, you may have to do a lot more than temporarily set aside your assumptions. You may have to discard them completely. Don’t allow yourself to get caught in the trap of thinking, “Well, that was interesting but we’ve been doing this a long time so we know what’s best for our customers.” Or, “We hear what our customers are saying, but it doesn’t apply to the way we do business.”

Instead, look closely at how you define the value of your product or service and whether it truly aligns with your customer’s perception of value. The wider the gap between the two, the more you need to shift your thinking. Ask, “If we shifted our perspective to match that of our customers, how would that change the way we serve our market? What would we need to do differently in order to deliver maximum value?” Once you’ve adjusted your perspective, keep your new definition of value visible at all times so that it guides organizational behaviors.

We all want to feel respected and heard, including customers. Building empathy meets that most basic human need while developing the relationships your organization needs to achieve its goals.

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