— Maya Angelou
Maya Angelou, author and poet, died on May 28th at the age of 86, and her passing felt personal to me. I read her first autobiographical novel I Know Why the Caged Bird Sings in 1975, and saw her speak a year or so after that. Maya Angelou’s gracious presence filled that auditorium as did her rich, resonant voice. If you’ve read her writings, you understand how empathy is not evidence of weakness, but rather a sign of courage.
Is there a place for empathy at work? Is it the domain of female leaders or should all leaders call upon their courage and display empathy? The answer is yes, empathy belongs at work, and it is the responsibility of all leaders to create an environment where people feel like someone cares about their well-being. In his book Working with Emotional Intelligence author Daniel Goleman says that empathy “represents the foundation skill for all the social competencies important for work.” He also says that men and women have the same latent ability to feel empathy, but societal expectations discourage men from showing it.
So, male leaders: Gender is not your “get out of jail free” card regarding empathy!
And female leaders: Demonstrating empathy does not mean that you’re too soft to succeed in business.
Everyone: We know you care about people, but it’s not enough to care. You have to SHOW you care:
1. When you sense that someone is struggling, ASK them how they are doing and offer support, advice, or simply an open door. Employees appreciate your interest. Don’t hesitate because you fear your question might open up some sort of heavy emotional discussion. Have courage.
2. When you sense that someone on your team would benefit from a confidence-boosting development opportunity, TELL THEM that you believe in their abilities and SAY that you want to help them succeed. Too often, these conversations happen without the high potential (hi-po) individual in the room, and leaders assume the hi-po just “knows” that they are valued. They don’t. In fact, in the absence of your positive encouragement they may see the development opportunity as yet another test to determine their worthiness.
3. When you sense that your group’s emotions are running higher than usual, ENGAGE with the group to uncover emotional drivers and help REDIRECT them towards a more productive path forward. NOTICE if the emotions become more manageable as the conversation returns to safer ground.
Ultimately, your ability to demonstrate empathy is a big component of your leadership presence. The data points that you put out there through big and small interactions will confirm that you are, indeed, the leader who has the courage to care.