I didn’t initially listen about not being a good listener, which accentuated my lack of empathy.
Our current work environment has made empathy, along with other people-focused leadership traits, more important than ever before. Only 29 percent of employees say their leaders are effective at “human leadership,” according to a 2022 Gartner survey, which includes empathy along with authenticity and adaptability. I would argue for the inclusion of compassion and resilience in the human leadership category—both of which were critical in helping me to become an empathetic leader.
My journey began early in my career when I had two separate managers, one on each US coast, tell me that I needed to develop empathy. I was working in Los Angeles, California, in 1991 when my then-manager said, “Michelle, you really need to be more empathetic.” I asked for details, and his response was just to “temper my intolerance more.”
I didn’t understand what he meant and quickly dismissed his feedback because I figured, incorrectly, that he didn’t know what he was talking about. So, I continued doing what I was doing.
However, six months later, while working for my new manager on the East Coast, he gave me feedback: Although I was a top performer and had great skills in a lot of leadership areas, the one area that I was missing—pretty significantly—was empathy.
Case in pointMy manager noted situations where I demonstrated a lack of empathy and tolerance for people who didn’t know as much as I did about a specific topic. Some situations were those when I was trying to determine learning requirements. Rather than listening to my stakeholders and using their information to assess their needs, I told them what they needed. That didn’t go over well.
He explained that “Not everyone is as smart as you or has the same experience as you. You need to stop and understand where they are coming from before you tell them what they need or dismiss their expressed needs.”
His feedback really stung, not only because he had tied it to being a good leader, but also because I realized that by dismissing my previous manager’s feedback, I was doing exactly what he said I shouldn’t do. Rather than listening, I completely disregarded what he was saying because I didn’t think he knew what he was talking about.
Upon reflecting on both managers’ feedback with a newfound appreciation, I realized how much I lacked tolerance, empathy, and self-awareness. That was a turning point for me in my career. From that moment forward, I determined that I would learn what empathy was, develop it, and demonstrate it as much as possible—if not always.
A new focusEmpathy is a skill that people can develop. The key is not to confuse empathy with sympathy. According to Merriam-Webster, sympathy is when you share the feelings of another; empathy is when you understand the feelings of another but do not necessarily share them.
Developing empathetic skills is not something that an individual can do quickly. It takes time—a lot of reflection, patience, and persistence. To develop empathy, rather than focusing on myself, I began focusing on others, which was new for me. I began thinking about what it feels like to be in their situations.
Doing so completely changed my approach to how I looked at and solved problems. I forced myself to slow down and make sure I had taken the other person’s views, perspectives, and feelings into account.
This new approach to the way I viewed matters, situations, or people changed my perspective as to how others may be experiencing life. It was eye-opening. I realize now that the day I stopped worrying about my needs and instead started focusing on others’ needs was the day my empathetic leadership journey began.
Prior to that, I was an awesome top performer—an expert in my field, a jack of all trades. I was also a natural teacher, tapped to instruct others and show them how to do things. I traveled around the world to share my expertise with clients and colleagues. But that wasn’t enough.
With empathy comes successAs I reflect now, I realize that several key roles, personal situations, and volunteer opportunities have significantly shaped my ability to be empathetic:
- Sales (getting rejected—often—and having to figure out how to help my customer to make a sale)
- Traveling and working in other countries (learning customs and understanding other individuals’ lives)
- Volunteering with foster teenage girls (figuring out how to connect with them in a difficult situation and help improve their lives)
- Becoming an adoptive parent (focusing on how to plan for the child’s future while staying focused on the birth parents’ needs)
- Volunteering as president of a parent-teacher organization (influencing parents and teachers based on their needs)
Along the way, I discovered there are other skills, which—if strengthened—help develop empathy: actively listening, providing support to employees, and design thinking. I found value in several books that I still often refer to: The Four Agreements by don Miguel Ruiz, The 7 Habits of Highly Effective People by Stephen R. Covey, and The 5 Languages of Appreciation in the Workplace by Gary Chapman and Paul White.
Had I not developed empathy (and compassion), I would never have achieved the level of success I have today because those qualities helped me become vulnerable, authentic, and resilient. Whenever I have struggled, I stopped and focused on others, the challenges they are dealing with, and how they are feeling. Not only does that force me to examine others’ situations and what is happening to them, but it also puts what is happening to me in perspective.
Now, as an executive coach and global leader, steadfastly top of mind for me is what others are experiencing. I’m continually curious about how they are feeling about a situation and what I may be able to do to support them as they work through it. As my team and I create learning experiences, we constantly explore what people need from our solutions. How are they going to interact with them? How will they feel afterward?
I view life as a journey full of amazing experiences. Some may not seem so great as I’m traveling through them, but as I reflect later, I find that they have taught me a great deal about how to be a much better person, family member, friend, colleague, and leader.
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