I thought that being a woman, a minority and from a lower socio-economic background meant I was as empathetic as they come. Running a company taught me that I had a lot to learn.
Interestingly, it was a woman who presented me with my first real empathy challenge. She had just given birth and wanted to jump back into the workplace. As a result of her new baby, she would need a place to pump breast milk in the office.
Well, I don't have children and I knew absolutely nothing about "expressing," pumps, or breast milk. I also had no idea what it would mean for our office. For the first time, I truly understood what it must be like for a man, dealing with a woman and all of our wonderful mysteries. I also, as horrible as this might come across, understood why someone might hesitate to hire a new mother. This thought was truly shocking to me. But being put for the first time in a situation where I was really at a loss, made me realize just how difficult it is to accommodate something you aren't familiar with or don't understand. This, however, is not an excuse. Good leadership and good organizations have to be very aware of where they are missing something important.
Thankfully, I'm a pretty self-aware person. I hired her, acknowledged that I had something to learn and then went to work educating myself. I also asked my family, friends and any mother I encountered—What does a mom who is breast feeding need at work? How can I make her more comfortable? I immersed myself in understanding and emerged empathetic.
Usually, you don't learn empathy until "it" happens to you. You don't know what it is like to feel disenfranchised until you're in a foreign country and can't get your point across or you can't comprehend requiring businesses to put in ramps until a knee surgery puts you in a wheelchair. What I learned is that I didn't have to be a new mother to have empathy for one. Simply taking the time to confront a situation with which I was not familiar with honesty and openness, gave me a chance to exercise my empathy muscle.
You can do it, too. For example, if you're not a cyclist, try riding a bike to work for a couple of days instead of driving and see what it's like to navigate cars all morning. I venture to guess the experience will change how you drive or at least give you pause when you pass a cyclist on your way to work. Even if you can't somehow put yourself in someone else's shoes, the mere exercise of thinking like you're wearing them, is vital to leadership in our incredibly diverse world.
Like all muscles, the empathy muscle is one that definitely has to be exercised. It's simply too easy to get complacent and even easier to insulate ourselves in the world we know. Empathy, though, opens up that world and a strong muscle means you'll be ready to navigate it.
How empathetic are you? Take the test at www.aliciamorga.com.