Walking in Someone’s Shoes is Gross. Try Being Empathetic Instead!!

Matt Havens Leadership Empathy

Hi everyone! It’s April – which means hopefully nobody fell for an April Fool’s jokes this year. It’s a running tradition in my family to try and trick my Dad, who mysteriously continues to fall for something each year despite marking it on his calendar. One year I called him at 2:00am to tell him I was in jail, my thought process being he might not recognize it was April 1st if I woke him from his slumber. Success!! My favorite was the time I told him I’d just gotten fired; his 15-minute tirade about my evil, soulless boss was well worth it.

Aside from planning my April Fool’s attack this year, I recently got back into reading books. And yes, I realize that’s sort of a ridiculous sentence. You got “back into reading?” Did you only look at picture books for a year? Were they the kind with thick cardboard pages and pop-up animals inside? No, not exactly. I just mean I got back into the habit of reading books as a way to disengage from my phone screen for a few hours each day. I’ve never been one for fiction; moreso I enjoy reading about people and events which happened in real life.

Anyway, one of the things I found interesting in the two most recent books I’ve read is their ties to the leadership principle of empathy. Both books were in no-way leadership books; however, their stories could very easily have been used in any number of leadership seminars I’ve attended. I’ve talked frequently with colleagues and peers about how the lack of empathy in leadership circles today is larger than in the past. Industries are moving quicker, incorporating lean techniques in a variety of facets, and leaders – some of whom are new to the leadership role – are overwhelmed with so many other priorities they sometimes forget the easiest one to apply.

The tough part when talking about empathy (or other “soft skills” like integrity, honesty, etc.) is everyone thinks they have it. Who would willingly raise their hand and say, “Empathetic? Nope, not me. I could care less about other people.” But being empathetic and practicing it are two different conversations. Truly understanding the people you’re working with is powerful. Their source of motivation, the past experiences they bring with them, and their personal lives all play a role in the person you see and interact with daily. So the question becomes: How are you practicing empathetic leadership? I wanted to share a couple of questions to ask yourself – or those you lead – to start some conversation and dig a little deeper into the people behind the work.

1. Who do you work FOR?

No, this not a “who’s your daddy?” type question to ask as a joke. Get your mind out of the gutter, people. But have you ever asked the people you lead who captures the source of their motivation? There could be a million answers, too. The most common is probably family. For me, that’s a big one. I work for my girls. I work so they have the opportunity to experience the world we live in. And if I dig deeper, that’s also the reason I don’t pull 90-hour weeks like some jobs. Those jobs might come with more money, but since I work for my girls, that means I have to be home and present with them when possible. Who do YOU work for? It’s a powerful question and when applied you’ll learn a lot about the people you lead and you can leverage that information to lead them more effectively.

Why did you get out of bed today? And why did you come into work?

It’s another take on the first question, but this one gets at a sense of personal motivation. Everyone has their reasons for working the job they’re currently in, but the motivation behind it is often different. Maybe they came into work today because it’s an opportunity to earn a promotion. Maybe they are the first in their family to go to college and get a “professional” job, so work is a source of pride. Maybe they came in because they have to pay the bills. Just be careful about accepting the last response at face value. We all have bills to pay, but often (not always) there are a variety of jobs available which can do that. Dig a little deeper at the source of their own motivation and you’ll unlock some different ways to approach this person.

Understanding the people you lead and how they see the world is a tough task, but one which is vital to effective leadership. Hopefully these simple questions get you kickstarted in the right direction to having some strong and productive conversations.

Now, if you’ll excuse me, I’ve got some April Foolin’ to do. Take care!

I’m still looking for more books to read, so if you’ve got one which should make the reading list, hit me up @HavensSpeaking.

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