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How to find the right balance of empathy as a leader

When practicing empathetic leadership, you still need to set clear boundaries.

How to find the right balance of empathy as a leader
[Photo: Silvio Quick/iStock]
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We need more empathy in the workplace. The pandemic has taught us the importance of that. As I see it, there are two ways to go about driving employee performance and productivity. The hard way is promoting a culture of fear, profit at all costs, and general pushiness. Alternatively, there is the easy way: through empathy.

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In a conversation I had with Steve Payne, vice chair of the Americas at EY Consulting, he recognized the importance of empathy at work. If employers are empathetic, they are more attuned to the needs of the new generation of employees. Empathy helps to create the right environment for everyone to be successful. And the impact on the bottom line is clear—creating an empathetic culture means people stay longer (retention), reduces churn even in an industry where it is traditionally very high (attrition), and creates a more engaged workforce, that is prepared to put more energy into their work.

This year, EY conducted a survey of 16,000 employees and 54% of global workers would consider leaving their job post-COVID-19 pandemic if they are not afforded some form of flexibility in where and when they work. Millennials are twice as likely as baby boomers to quit. The pandemic taught employers that they can offer flexibility. To compete in the new world of work, they need to listen to what people want and heed the lessons of 2020. There is no going back.

I want to stress that empathy by itself is not the whole story. The ideal balance is something I call neutral empathy. Where the other person feels listened to and acknowledged, but where expectations are clear too. From such a place, you can navigate a productive path forward for both sides. In this situation, there is give and take—and there are no surprises. So, how do you set boundaries as a leader?

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Blend empathy into tough conversations

Empathy does not mean you are weak. It means that you have a solid foundation to approach tough conversations. Many people try to avoid confrontation at work because they are afraid of potential drama. But the outcome of potential workplace conflicts is partially within our control.

As a manager, when you are conveying something that an employee may not want to hear, your approach is what can define the outcome. How you go about things will determine how they feel about you, as well as their reaction.

An easy way to think about it is to put yourself into your employees’ shoes. Consider how they might feel. Knowing what you know—applying your own self-awareness—consider what would be a sensitive way to approach the conversation?

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So in general, explain yourself, put the conversation into context, and practice transparency. Done in the right way, it may keep the relationship intact and make the employee more receptive to what you are saying.

Be very clear on expectations

In an employer–employee relationship, clarity of expectations is key. Otherwise, it might lead to employees not performing or the wrong people being recruited for the job. A situation that is not good for you, as a leader, or for them as an employee.

It is easy to assume expectations are understood but unless they are expressly communicated, you leave yourself open to misinterpretation.

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An employer–employee relationship is a two-way street. An employee should know what is expected of them and have the flexibility to comment on and meet those expectations in their own way while asking for the help they need along the way. And an employer should provide the requisite support structure to enable employees to meet those expectations.

That requires radical transparency on both sides. An employee should be able to be honest, which is more likely to happen if their boss and company is seen as empathetic.

Prioritize accountability

Once expectations are clear, all parties need to hold each other accountable to meeting them. Relevant peer-to-peer and management structures should be in place to support that.

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The reality of being a leader is that sometimes tough decisions need to be made. If expectations are consistently not met, then, understanding why (which requires empathy) is key. Once the reasons are understood and support is provided, if needed, the behavioral change of the employee needs to follow.

If that doesn’t happen, then, allowing such a situation to continue sets a negative example for others in the team. As Payne put it, to maintain a positive culture, people need confidence that the system works, and bad behavior is addressed. That is where accountability is key. Sometimes, it is best for both the employer and employee to part ways.


Sara Sabin is a coach to executive and entrepreneur leaders. She is a business owner and has been the founder of many startups over the years.