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Leading with Empathy Builds Trust

How do good leaders motivate their teams? How does she get people to collaborate, create, and drive progress? Why are his team members so open and honest with him? Why do some team members go above and beyond for their leaders?  

We all know trust plays a significant role in the relationships between team members and leaders. Trust defines the relationships from one team member to another as well. 

The question: ‘How do I build more trust?’ lies too often unasked in the center of our desire to grow into successful and productive leaders. The reason we do not get around to asking this question regularly has to do with the daily whirlwind of our jobs. Like many important but not urgent matters, the challenge of building trust gets back-burnered in favor of tasks that add to the bottom line today. 

Low trust works against us like a tiny hole in the roof of a house. Every time rain falls, water creeps in and extends a path of destruction. We may know the leak exists, but as long as the inside of the house remains dry, we put off repairs. Then one day all the damage done by months or years of ignoring the leak comes crashing down, flooding the house. Now it’s too late to fix the tiny hole. We have to clean up a big mess and rebuild. 

What if there were some small habits we could build into our daily whirlwind, some minor shifts in our approach to our team members, that could build a little trust each day? One day we would look around and see a strong, productive team around us as we reap the benefits of a slowly growing trust. 

One habit or shift in approach that can build trust over time is the practice of Empathy.

What is Empathy?

A helpful way to understand the kind of empathy we’re talking about here is to set it against some unhealthy forms of interaction and compare. 

Empathy vs. Enmeshment

Enmeshment: Your problem is my problem. I need you to be ok before I can be ok. 

Tom walks down the street and hears a cry for help. He turns and there’s his co-worker, Steve. Driven by a real sense of friendship and concern, Tom goes to Steve.

“What’s wrong?”

“Hey Tom, I stepped onto this storm drain and now my heel is stuck. I can’t get my foot out. I’m trapped.”

“That’s terrible! How long have you been like this?”

Steve glances at this wrist. “About 15 minutes I guess. If I can’t get free soon, I’ll be late to work.”

“I can’t imagine how you must feel. Let me get in there with you so I can truly understand your frustration.”

Tom proceeds to jam his heel into the same storm drain, effectively trapping his own foot.

“Steve, I can see what you mean. This is awful. I know exactly how you feel.”

Many believe that empathy is achieved when you can say, “I know how you feel”.

However, the dilemma in the scenario of Tom and Steve is plain. Tom has not helped Steve by experiencing the same situation. He has actually worsened their plight, because now they are both stuck, and will both be late to work.

Hyper-criticism is another form of enmeshment. If I tether my success to your success, I am likely to second guess every decision you make and examine all your actions through a microscope with no tolerance for mistakes, false-starts, or human error. This level of scrutiny creates fear, and fear leaves no room for trust. 

Empathy vs. Detachment 

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Your problem is not my problem. I do not care if you are ok as long as your issues do not negatively impact me. Tactics: Avoid, deflect, ignore, or slap on a quick-fix effort. The goal: I don’t want to be responsible for you, especially if you have a problem. How can I “deal with you” without getting too close, without allowing your problem to become my problem.

Detachment allows me to disassociate myself from you, from the consequences of your decisions, and from your personal and professional success. The detached leader keeps the office door closed. In meetings, they will speak often and listen little. They will avoid small talk or sharing about personal matters. All business, the detached leader leaves others feeling like interchangeable cogs in a machine rather than valued members of a team. 

Team members may trust this type of leader will do what is best for the bottom line, but not necessarily what benefits the individuals or the team. 

Empathy Is Differentiation

Differentiation is an interpersonal skill anyone can develop and which makes empathy possible. It is the ability to say “I am me. You are you. Who I am is not determined by who you are. Who you are is not determined by who I am.”

Differentiation sits squarely between the methods of enmeshment and detachment. It fuels a form of empathy that says, “Your problem is not my problem, but maybe we can share the load. I care about your success. I will leverage my resources for your benefit.”

A differentiated leader does not allow her own anxiety to negatively impact others. Nor does she allow the anxiety of others to negatively impact her. She can clearly distinguish between herself and another person, between her needs and another’s needs, and between her emotions and another’s emotions. She does not respond to anger with anger or to discouragement with discouragement. Instead, she communicates the value of the individual and seeks to contribute to his growth. Whether the individual succeeds or fails, the differentiated leader remains at peace. 

Action-Oriented Empathy

Effective empathy leads to action. It’s easy to ask a few standard questions, pretend to listen to the answers, then throw a “Let me know how I can help” over our shoulder as we walk away. This approach often serves as a placebo encouraging us to replace helpful empathy with a passive, unhelpful version. We can fool ourselves into thinking we have shown empathy because we did something, even though our “action” failed to communicate value or and did not lead to growth. 

Action-oriented empathy is not content to wait for someone to call for help, because truthfully, most people do not ask for help until something has broken and damage has been done.

What if instead, our response was, “Let’s experiment and take action together and see if it will lead to progress.”

How do we know what action to take? We can only learn this through active listening. This involves asking good questions, listening to understand, and then taking action on what you hear.

A good habit for empathetic leaders is to ask “How can I help?” Then, wait patiently, listen to the answer, and follow through with action.

Empathy is not an easy path to trust; it is not fast. But veteran leaders know that no such “quick and easy way” exists. It requires patience and discipline and rewards those who have a long view of success. On the positive side, people who are treated empathetically by leaders will develop high levels of trust in those leaders. It works. And anyone can learn to lead with empathy. 

Part of learning is preparing for the obstacles we will face.

Defeating Categories

One hurdle we will encounter as we grow our empathy quotient is our tendency as humans to categorize others. Some forms of categorization are innocuous or even helpful. She fits in the “smart” category. He goes into the “funny” category. When we categorize based on personal history with an individual, we can avoid pitfalls or strengthen bonds. He bailed me out when I dropped the ball on that assignment once. He is loyal. She lied about me to a co-worker. She is untrustworthy. 

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Other forms of categorization can work against our desire to empathize. When we categorize an individual with whom we have no personal history, based on hearsay or outward and superficial markers, we can do so falsely. She’s wearing an expensive outfit. She must be successful. I want her on my team. Or I heard he takes a lot of PTO. He must be lazy. I’ll avoid working with him. 

This may sound petty, but if we’re honest, we engage in categorizing frequently, and often automatically. We do not set out to be petty or mean. Our brain’s effort to create shortcuts handicaps us when it comes to evaluating another person’s value. 

Here’s one way to combat the unhealthy side of categorizing: Embrace the ideas that diversity is good and different is neutral. 

Diversity is good. In case you’re wondering if diversity and inclusion still matter, leaders who lead with empathy pay attention to these things. The principle of valuing diversity says we’re not all the same and our differences make us stronger. Empathy allows a leader to pursue a diverse team without assigning more value to one set of differences than to another. 

Different is neutral. You are different from me. In fact, there are hundreds of ways in which you and I are different. Most of these differences are invisible and will not be noticed or discussed. I like baseball; you prefer soccer. I have lots of siblings; you are an only child. None of these variances make you better or worse than me. Our differences do not change the reality that we have equal value. Whether you eat vegan and I do not or you have light skin and I have dark, I will treat you as an equal and hope you will do the same for me. 

When we can overcome the negative consequences of categorizing people, we can lead effectively with empathy. 

Virtual Empathy

Another obstacle to action-oriented empathy can be the limited face-to-face interaction brought on by an increasingly virtual work environment.  What are some challenges with engaging empathetically in a virtual setting?

  1. Non-verbal Communication: A majority of communication, some say as much as 93%, takes place through non-verbal cues. The tone of voice and facial expressions can still be seen and interpreted on a video screen, but body language often remains hidden even in video-based interactions. If you get stuck using voice-only or written only forms of communication, communication becomes more challenging yet. Empathy depends on clear communication – speaking, listening, and interpreting non-verbal cues.
  2. Structured Setting: Some of the best windows of opportunity for leading with empathy open spontaneously. Unplanned encounters often create openness and authenticity that prove difficult to replicate in the scheduled confines of virtual meetings. 
  3. Physical Contact: Handshakes, fist bumps or a simple touch on the shoulder can communicate, “I am with you.” Most people respond well to these safe, healthy forms of contact. Obviously, the virtual world does not permit us to connect in positive physical ways. 

These obstacles notwithstanding, empathy can be demonstrated in virtual settings. We just need to get creative. 

Here are a few suggestions: 

  1. Use live video whenever possible. This convenience allows for the greatest access to non-verbal cues. It feels more personal than a phone call or email. 
  2. Consider meetings with no agenda or light agendas. A simple catch-up session can remove some structural barriers and allow people to open up. “All I want to know today is how you’re doing. Fill me in.” 
  3. Go Low-Tech. The ability to see and interact with someone who is far away using screens is a gift. But there are low-tech, low-contact forms that can communicate value in unique ways. Since we have practiced active listening, we know about significant events, like birthdays, work anniversaries, major medical procedures, or family events. A simple hand-written note sent through the mail seems quaint, but for that very reason, it stands out and can be meaningful. 

Take The Long Road

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In summary, every leader shelters an inner flame for movement. We want to grow, improve, and succeed. In collaborative environments, trust is crucial. Trust serves as a solid foundation for a strong, healthy team. Building trust pays off. A team built on trust accomplishes more and has more fun doing it. Leading with empathy can get you there. When leaders get this right, it works. But it doesn’t happen quickly or easily. Leading with empathy is a long-term investment of time and energy into a slow-yield account. With some intentionality, we can avoid detours and make progress daily. 

These signposts serve to keep us on course:

Enmeshment may feel like empathy, but it fails to recognize the individual. 

Detachment may feel like wisdom, but it fails to value the individual. 

Leaders who can differentiate between themselves and others pave the way for empathy. 

Categorizing people without a relational context severely hinders understanding and empathy. 

You have a destination in mind for your life, your career, and your profession. Trust is the vehicle that will get you there and empathy is the engine that drives it. 

Additional Resources

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