Becoming an empathetic manager
Scenario: I’m not very good at understanding where my team members are „coming from“. Certain team members have let me know that this is frustrating. How do I become a more empathetic manager?
Empathy is defined as the ability to feel and understand the feelings of others. Often, in the workplace, empathy doesn’t take center stage. In a world where emotions and work are thought to be a bad mix, empathy can be hard to find.
Ursula Hesselmann has addressed scenarios such as the one above during her many years as a coach, consultant, mediator, and trainer, and she often wonders „why is this question what it is?“ Why empathy? It’s okay to be empathetic, she notes, but it’s really important to simply get to know your team…and then the understanding follows.
When presented with such a scenario, she explains, this is a prime opportunity to ask questions. Who, what, when, where, why? It’s time to zero in on the fact that these team members feel „frustrated“ and the leader must find out why by participating in some active listening. That means REALLY listening, explains Ursula, not listening while crafting an answer in your head. Active listening means you’re doing more than just hearing and you’re taking the time to summarize and re-frame so as to make sure you truly understand.
If only one team member is indicating frustration, Ursula notes, check with others after an initial conversation with that person (though be careful about revealing what was discussed). It could be that this individual is actually having a problem with another team member but has given you the role of the “middle man” so that he or she needn’t confront the problem face-to-face. At that point, you may need to be a mediator or/and a coach.
However, if the entire team is feeling frustration, something else is amiss. If that’s the case, Ursula points out, she’d opt to address the entire team together.
„Ask them to put the points on the table. Go from point to point and clarify the problem,“ she explains. „Is it me – the leader, the company, some team members, or is it the process?“
And during this entire discussion, it’s all about trustworthiness and credibility, says Ursula. „Control is good but trust is better,“ she adds. Think about how you’re acting, your body language, your tone of voice“, the long-time coach stresses. If you – the leader – appear angry or deceptive, you lose their trust, she explains.
Of course, the manager needs to take a step back and look at himself as well. It’s important for him to observe how his personality, work habits, and leadership style might be adding to the frustration of his direct reports. The manager also should ask the same questions of himself as he asked his direct reports during meetings with them.
And equally as important is the need to stay calm through each step, Ursula stresses, especially in this scenario where the manager is being openly and directly criticized. It’s okay to show emotion, she adds, but important to explain why those emotions are coming forth. It’s helps others recognize you’re human