At the heart of effective manager communication is the skillful use of language, not only to ensure that people correctly perform tasks but also to influence them. Motivating language comes in different forms, and one type that is becoming increasingly important is one that leaders use the least.
Empathetic language expresses sincere concern and caring for another person’s well-being. It conveys civility, compassion, and emotional support—qualities that for decades were dismissed as touchy-feely and irrelevant to a company’s bottom line. But that’s changing.
Research shows that leadership requires greater emphasis on creating and maintaining relationships. Caring for employees is linked to greater commitment and loyalty, increased creativity, and improved productivity.
When people don’t get the emotional support that empathetic language provides, they withdraw into themselves, a process experts call “compartmentalization.” They are present physically and mentally but do not feel the kind of connection with their boss that would motivate them to improve their performance. Instead, they view the work as a contractual obligation.
It’s like a sports fan whose favorite team failed to reach the championship game. They may still watch the game, but won’t display the excitement that they would if they had an emotional tie to one team.
An empathetic manager or executive offers encouragement, compliments, soothing words in moments of high anxiety, and reassurances in difficult situations such as a project setback. The leader is an attentive listener who asks questions and shares stories.
Jacqueline Mayfield, a leading researcher in the field of motivational language theory, offers three ways to show empathy in the workplace:
Be polite. Have a cordial greeting when you see people, don’t interrupt others, avoid harsh language, and hold the sarcasm. Such behaviors promote civility.
Ask people if their job is satisfying. Let employees know you care about whether the job is rewarding. Ask questions in a nonjudgmental way, listen attentively to the answers, and share your stories of job satisfaction. Employees appreciate knowing that their manager cares. When they feel supported, research shows they are more motivated, they deepen their knowledge, and they are more creative.
Offer encouraging words for achievements and setbacks. Express congratulations when appropriate; and even when there is no award or “victory,” praise the person’s perseverance and help them learn valuable lessons from setbacks. Too many managers do not do this, perhaps because many companies still underestimate the far-reaching impact of communication.
Bill Gentry, a leadership researcher, says management’s lack of empathy has a long history. “Managers aren’t taught about it in school and rarely go through it in any leadership development,” he said. They “need to change the way they and others think of empathy, to see it as a strength, not a weakness.”