The Power of Managing with Empathy

I’ve spent a good deal of my career trying to figure out how to create a better experience for employees in the workplace. It’s the reason I decided to go to graduate school almost 10 years ago to study industrial organizational psychology (the study of people in the workplace), and it’s the focus of my role in talent development here at Firewood. Ultimately, it has taught me that managing with empathy is a key part of creating a better employee experience. 

My obsession with the employee experience began after I was unceremoniously exited from my very first job out of college as a junior recruiter for a financial recruiting firm. It was 2008, the start of the financial recession, and I’d only been on the job for a year. I was being laid off because times were tough, they said, but they also didn’t spare my feelings in letting me know that they thought I was horrible at my job. Granted, I did not enjoy the cold-calling aspect of the job (more like hated it) and my performance may have reflected that, but I also didn’t receive training, feedback, or advocacy from my manager. Somehow they expected me to figure it out, and when I didn’t, they sent me packing. 

I now know that I should have been more accountable for my own growth. But even then I instinctively knew that something crucial was missing. That something was empathy.

In a white paper on empathy in the workplace published by the Center for Creative Leadership (CCL), researchers “found that the ability to understand what others are feeling [empathy] is a skill that clearly contributes to effective leadership.” The CCL concluded that “empathetic leaders are assets to organizations because they are able to effectively build and maintain relationships.” A lot of my work has been driven by my belief that the relationship between manager and employee is the most important relationship in the workplace. A manager is responsible for their employee’s professional well-being and growth, and understanding the unique strengths of each employee can help a manager leverage their talents to build a more collaborative and productive team.

The relationship between manager and employee is the most important relationship in the workplace.

Here are some ways for a manager to use an empathetic approach to invest in their employees:

Understand the new-employee perspective

Perspective is everything, and it’s very easy to forget what it was like to be new. No matter the level of experience of a new employee—whether they have zero experience (like I did in my first job) or decades’ worth—starting a new job is the great equalizer. Everyone starts at the same place. 

How can you make sure a new employee thrives in the first few weeks?

  • Empower them with knowledge. Cover everything they will need to know to get around the office comfortably in the first few weeks: things like protocol for the review process, training on tools and systems, and how different teams interact or collaborate. No matter how open your door is, or how helpful office mates are, no one wants to continually ask questions, and many new employees will try to figure things out themselves. Sometimes the smallest thing you might not have thought to mention can end up affecting their performance, just because they weren’t told. 
  • Clearly communicate expectations. Job expectations, your expectations, and what it looks like to be successful. Employees can’t master what they aren’t told.

Every single employee has a learning curve when they start a new job, no matter what. Don’t expect too much too soon, no matter how talented or experienced the person is. 

Take time to uncover an employee’s motivations and strengths

Want to know the secret to motivating employees? Get to know them. And let them get to know you. Ultimately, you’ll want to learn what intrinsically motivates an employee, what inspires them to do something merely because they enjoy the activity (not because they’re seeking an external reward). 

  • Schedule meeting time away from the office—coffee or lunch off-site—to answer any questions, find out what they like about their new job, and where they feel they might need help. Be authentic, get past small talk, and listen. 
  • Work together to identify strengths. Sometimes people have difficulty zeroing in on what makes them happy work-wise (or seeing what they’re good at). Observe the things they do really well, and incorporate more of that into their role. 

If the manager at my fateful first job had gotten to know me, he would have learned that while cold-calling was not my strong suit (and was, in fact, my worst nightmare), I am really good at building relationships with existing clients and employees and I could have brought value to a different area of focus.

Uncovering intrinsic motivations and strengths can help you get the most out of your employees. And when you take the time to learn what makes an employee tick, it makes them feel cared for and valued as a person. 

Dig deeper into weaknesses or areas of underperformance

So many of us have experienced being on a team with a person who isn’t quite getting up to speed, isn’t producing quality work, and is seemingly just not working out. The easiest (but quite possibly the worst) thing to do is to think of that person as a problem that needs fixing. Instead, when someone on your team is not performing, it’s your job—your responsibility as a manager—to figure out what’s going on.

While it’s important not to discount the fact that you need someone to operate at a specific level work-wise and that you need to address the issue at hand, don’t assume you know what “the problem” is (a poor performer or a bad hire). Instead, approach with empathy. 

  • Be frank. Let them know your concerns about their performance.
  • Ask for their input. What are they struggling with, what has their experience been, and what do they think the issue might be? This will help create an environment of trust. 
  • Determine a way forward together. Does the person need more training? Is this role not playing to their strengths? Or is there perhaps something happening outside of work that’s a distraction? You hired this person for a reason, so take the time to uncover what’s going on. And then map out a plan that you both agree on.

You can’t know what their experience is or the best way to solve the issue until you ask and listen. Many times, they don’t even know themselves until you give them the space and the support to figure it out.

In my case, even though being let go from that job was a shocking and painful experience, it was also the best thing for me at the time. I’m sure that, as Maria Ross suggested in her presentation at the 3% Movement conference, sometimes the best solution is simply to move on.

The empathetic leader

That first job did turn out to be a valuable learning experience for me. It might not have taught me how to be a successful recruiter, but it taught me a lot about what I was looking for in a manager and it ultimately helped shape my career. 

Approaching a leadership position with empathy is essential to creating a happier and more productive workplace. Learning about empathetic leadership is just the beginning. It takes application, practice, and an investment of time and attention to others to foster empathy, which in turn enhances your employees’ performance and productivity—as well as your own.