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Empathy (Getting Back to Work - 5/22)


It’s such an elusive and misunderstood word, connected at the hip with compassion. It’s a skill—an art form, really—I often find myself struggling to master (or, rather, deliver appropriately). The ability to recognize need, particularly in a work environment, allowing you to stop and take note of someone else’s condition, view, or state cannot be more important than it is right now. As leaders push towards a renewed focus that requires others to engage and help, we need the ability to recognize and, more importantly, act on an emotional sensitivity we may not normally have exercised.

In the rush to “normalize” activity and get back to business, we will face a new challenge: re-entry. I think about the moment I decided to enlist in the US Army. They slid that contract across the table and said, "Just sign here." It was the first “adult” thing I was doing on my own; I vividly recall the fear of the unknown, the uncertainty of what it meant, the excitement of the potential, and reassurance that even though I didn’t know them, others had gone before me and were going now. It was safe. I stopped, asked for a moment, went to a phone (yes, they were on walls not in pockets in those olden days), and called my dad. I broke the news over the phone to him and asked for his opinion. His answer, in one sentence, gave me the reassurance that I would be okay: “It’s not what I wanted for you, but if you’re decided, I will support you.” It was like a cloud of worry was lifted, the fear of the unknown remained, but his choice to not shut it down with authority, let me know that someone was with me no matter what the situation was.

The ability to recognize when people just need someone to hear them out, to provide a sense of stability, or reassure them cannot be underestimated. As we lead over 36 million unemployed and many more millions of Americans back to work, we must account for the need to listen with purpose. Understand that not everyone is in the place to—and cannot wholeheartedly—recommit to the work they left when their lives were ground to a halt just a few weeks ago. As you press for delivery of your product or service and explain the critical nature of the role an individual plays in that process, your ability to recognize and respond to people where they are (yes, emotionally; don’t be a caveman right now) will make a difference in how fast, precise, and on board people are able to deliver your needs. Believe it or not, you have the ability motivate, inspire, and exceed all delivery expectations simply by not being a jerk.

Many of us have experienced loss, isolation from people who are important to us, and the inability to help while watching others overachieve or expose themselves and lose. These experiences take a toll; as America retreated to the comfort (or discomfort) of their home (offices) and worked or waited, the world changed. We come back to testing, social distancing, the fear of shared bathrooms, constant disinfecting of surfaces, and no ability to whisper to each other. The world of work now requires us to actually listen to each other. And that is the key to the elusive art of empathy. You see, we can’t understand what each of us is going through if we don’t hear it.

  1. Listen intently, on purpose and with a desire to understand.

  2. Verbalize what you hear so you give the person you engage with the ability to confirm or correct your understanding.

This creates the opportunity for you to respond with, dare I say, compassion. The horror of having to take a moment to remove focused, driven energy designed only for success to hear about someone’s child, recent car trouble, nightmare hospital or funeral experience is your new mandate. Why? because it’s smart business, and it just happens to be the right thing to do. Yes, you can take the opposite track and keep your “leave that at home, it’s time to deliver” attitude, but this time you risk more than just the loss of a few minutes of productivity; you lose inspiration.

The gift that keeps on giving will now be a weapon of mass destruction leaving company after company in its wake. You see, the American workers priorities have also just been realigned. They have had weeks to re-evaluate what is really important, experiment with their budgets, deciding what they need to survive, and evaluating what they want to spend their time doing. They are deciding IF they want/need to return to work, under what conditions they will return, if they want to stay with their kids, move closer to parents, or divorce their partners, so your priority messages to division heads about timeline protocols may simply not be enough this time around to drive your organization back. It will start only when you demonstrate understanding. Compassion is not for the faint of heart, it requires action, taking what you heard, and translating it into action that is meaningful.

  1. Understand you cannot save the world. But you can adjust schedules, create accommodations that are considerate of individual need, redirect team priorities to support a client's emergency or simply acknowledge the expressed anxiety.

  2. Follow up. Taking action doesn’t finish with the act itself, it needs to be completed and you now own the solution you provided. Make sure it’s done, delivered, and complete: “Hey Bob, were you able to get take care of that personal need? Was the extra hour enough or do you need more time?”

  3. Listen. (Yes, again.) Listen until you hear them and can acknowledge the actions activity is complete: “Absolutely, and anytime you need someone just to listen, don’t hesitate.”

Transformational leadership is not only about moving your organization to the next level, it’s about moving your people, too.

History demonstrates it is smart business. From the early examples of Sears Roebuck creating pre-fabricated housing and Ford motor company paying workers a living wage so they could afford their cars--the cars they built--to all-day catering, rest pods, and on-site dry cleaning across Silicon Valley, smart employers recognize the results of putting workers' needs first. Taking a few minutes to understand and act on people’s concerns, needs or fears, helping them set boundaries that allow them to address the changing world, and creating a safe workplace will do more for your organization that any other digital transformation, HR enhancement, or forceful directive can accomplish. Remember you get to reset, too. Coming back online as empathetic, compassionate leaders will do a world of good for you and your organization. Keeping people on the team is just as important as getting them on the team.

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