Put Empathy into Action

Leighton Lord • April 29, 2020

Empathy is a key element of emotional intelligence – the connection between self and others. We’re all seeing the power of empathy in dramatic ways during the COVID-19 crisis; from the heartfelt appreciation for health care workers, to the celebration of sanitation crews and delivery drivers.  While we undoubtedly see empathy’s impact, many still believe it’s something you either do or do not “have,” or don’t think of empathy as an action.  I would like to challenge that belief, and encourage all of us to be better leaders by putting empathy into action.

When Mahatma Gandhi returned to India in 1915, he was a pinstriped barrister with a high-stiff collar. But in order to lead his nation to independence, he knew he’d need the support and trust of the population living in poverty. So Gandhi put empathy into action, and began to dress, live and eat like the poor. It gave him a greater understanding of the lives and experiences of the poor of his country, and also helped him develop an extremely loyal and engaged following.

Leaders of modern organizations often operate on a different level than most of their people: their office is in a different location, they eat lunch with different people, they socialize in different circles. To be an effective leader, one must understand the entire organization, and a powerful way to do this is to prioritize empathy through your actions. Here are a couple of ideas to help you practice empathy in the workplace, as we all continue adjusting to this new “normal” life:

  • Attend meetings and lunches that you may not have to attend with employee groups you don’t typically interact with – set a calendar reminder, or ask a colleague to help keep you accountable, to make this happen.
  • Make an effort to reach out to every part of the organization and understand what folks do, even if it’s not crucial to your tasks that day.
  • Consider who you do not know well or at all, and make an effort to engage those employees. No one is exempt from this – including the contractors who may support your organization, such as couriers, cleaning crews, etc.
  • Keep a stack of cards at your desk – for any occasion – to sign with a personal note. These could express sympathy, congratulations, or a simple gesture of thanks that might otherwise go unsaid.

As you deploy these and other similar actions you will not only understand your organization better, but you will also foster the loyalty and engagement necessary to succeed.  And best of all, your life will be enriched by the variety of relationships you will build in the process.

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