Leading with empathy

If you are the lead wolf and you are responsible for employees, then you want to help others to be successful and have fun. You want to motivate them. Often I get asked: “Stefan, can I motivate employees at all?” And in many cases I think, yes, you can. However, you can only motivate other people – or avoid their demotivation – if you understand them, both rationally and emotionally. You need to understand the other persons triggers. These are the strong topics that personally touch and move the others. And to understand them, you need empathy. For this reason, empathy for you as a lead wolf is an important part of your leadership skill set.

But what is empathy? And how do I lead with empathy? Empathy is a skill that is critical to success in almost all walks of life. Executives with strong empathic skills have better personal relationships, can motivate themselves and others more, learn faster, and enjoy greater confidence. And when other people trust in you, you have the most important basis for your successful leadership.
According to psychologist Paul Ekman, empathy is not emotion itself but reaction to the emotion of another person. In addition, research distinguishes three types of empathy: Cognitive empathy lets us know what someone else is feeling. Emotional empathy makes us feel what the other person feels, and compassion makes us want to help others.

Empathy does not mean sympathy or tenderness. Rather, as a lead wolf one responds empathetically by offering consistency, continuing to be demanding and yet remaining encouraging and trusting particularly if the topic is unpleasant or controversial. Being empathetic doesn’t have to compromise your leadership, though. As a lead wolf you can remain demanding and consistent yet at the same time be understanding, encouraging, caring and trusting. When my bosses responded in this way, I often felt a special appreciation for being personally noticed and valued. That gave me confidence and motivation.

How do you do that now leading with empathy? Here are my 5 best tips for you:

1. Listen unbiased

Often, as the lead wolf, you already have a clear opinion on specific questions what makes it difficult for you to really listen to the other person in an unbiased manner. As you listen to the other, your inner parrot, your inner voice speaks aloud and makes it hard for you to really listen. Therefore, if possible, turn off all other influences when talking to your employees. Plan your time so that you can now be completely here, breathe deeply before the conversation and relax. Then listen carefully to what your employees say. Look not only for the mistakes and for the exception, but above all for the good, the new, the valuable in what they say. Give them feedback. Ask them really good questions that allow them to turn their own good ideas into brilliant ideas. 

So tip # 1: Listen without bias.

2. Feel what is meant

Although we often think we can decide rationally, most decisions we make are based on emotion. And what we feel, others can feel with empathy. Even Saint Exupéry said in the little prince: “One only sees well with the heart. The essentials are invisible to the eyes.” You as lead wolf should not only hear what others say, but feel what they mean and what they feel. 
I think a good example of real empathy was shown the German national football team in the World Cup semi-final 2014 in Brazil against the hosts. The pressure on the Seleçao was huge, everyone expected the title in their own country. But after less than half an hour, the German team led 5-0 and finally won 7:1. What happened after the final whistle, impressed many of the Brazilian spectators. The German players did not show generous, overbearing gestures of superiority, but first hugged their Brazilian opponents, consoling them and hugging them. And players and viewers felt that this was not a mock behavior, but honest and derived from empathy. Because all German players in the team knew from their own experience how painful defeats felt, especially on home soil in World Cup 2006. This authentic empathy increased the respect for the German team and gave it additional support from the audience. Only after this display of empathy, the German players went to their own fans and celebrated their impressive victory.

So tip # 2: Feel what is meant

3. Reduce stress, create space for empathy

When there is too much stress, it becomes difficult to really share in the experience of another. Therefore, try to reduce stress, e.g. by focusing, leaving out less important things, and not getting upset over trifles. 99% of all things we worry about today, never materialize. So, as the lead wolf, make a clear distinction between the many things that are significant but not really important and the few really important things. This reduces your stress and gives you strength and space for empathy.

So tip # 3: Reduce stress, create space for empathy.

4. Healthy Distance – Separate what is yours, what is mine

Even in situations where you show empathy, you need limits and a healthy distance. It is very good for all involved if you show real empathy, but it must not devour you. This is especially true for events and decisions of great personal importance such as e.g. a very significant negative performance feedback, or a separation interview. And a very sad example is when a leader must face grief. 
A particularly striking example of the need for healthy distance was given to me by our pastor in our community, Juerg Rother. Juerg is a very impressive man who, after a successful early management career in his mid-30s, decided to become pastor and has been leading our church excellently since then. When he experienced a 14-people assassination many years ago, he was called in emergency and looked after relatives of victims for 6 months, and saw how he himself reached his limits. When I recently had the opportunity to interview Juerg for this podcast on empathy, I asked him”Juerg, how did you sustain the pressure that long?” He replied that when he was completely exhausted after three months of helping others, he learned to distinguish himself as a helper. He said he had to separate what was his from what was not. Unfortunately, as a pastor, he could not take the pain away from a relative, it remained with them. But he was trying to alleviate it, and that effort belonged to him.” 

So tip # 4: Keep a healthy distance – Separate what is yours, what is mine.

5. Communicate the right thing with purpose and meaning

Even if you, as the lead wolf, show empathy, take another person’s perspective and sympathize with that person’s emotions, you still have to do the right thing, even if it’s hard and costs you sympathy. Sympathy is nice, and everyone wants to be liked. But as lead wolf is not crucial that everyone likes you all the time, but that everyone respects you all the time. Even if you show empathy in personally difficult situations, you should always do the right thing and convey the reason why a certain decision is right for the customer, for the company and the individual employee. Whenever you can do just that in difficult times, to do the right thing and at the same time show empathy, you will have success and fun with your team. 

So tip # 5: Communicate the right thing with purpose and meaning

Summarized my 5 best tips for you for leading with empathy:

1. Listen to the unbiased
2. Feel what is meant.
3. Reduce stress, space for empathy
4. Healthy Distance – Separate what is yours, what is mine
5. Communicate the right thing with purpose and meaning

Thank you for your time and attention, 
your lead wolf Stefan Homeister

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