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Leading with Empathy Builds Trust

How do good leaders motivate their teams? How do they get people to collaborate, create, and drive progress? Why are their team members so open and honest with them 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 don’t 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 damage. 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’d look around and see a strong successful 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 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’s actually worsened their plight, because now they’re 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’m 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 

Your problem is not my problem. I don’t care if you’re ok as long as your issues don’t 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’ll speak often and listen little. They’ll avoid small talk, or sharing personal stories. All business, the detached leader leaves others feeling like interchangeable cogs in a machine rather than valued members of a team. 

Team members may believe this type of leader will do what’s best for the bottom line, but not necessarily what benefits the individual or team. 

Empathy Is Differentiation

Differentiation is an interpersonal skill anyone can develop and which makes empathy possible. It’s the ability to say “I’m me. You’re 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 isn’t my problem, but maybe we can share the load. I care about your success. I’ll leverage my resources for your benefit.”

A differentiated leader doesn’t allow their own anxiety to negatively impact others. Nor do they allow the anxiety of others to negatively impact them. They can clearly distinguish between themself and another person, between their needs and another’s needs, and between their emotions and another’s emotions. They don’t respond to anger with anger or to discouragement with discouragement. Instead, they communicates the value of the individual and seek to contribute to their 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 didn’t lead to growth. 

Action-oriented empathy isn’t content to wait for someone to call for help, because truthfully, most people don’t ask for help until something’s broken and damage has been done.

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

How do we know what action to take? We can only learn this throughactive listening. This involves asking good questions, listening to understand, taking action on what you hear and then following up to make sure everything’s okay.

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 isn’t an easy path to trust. It’s not fast. But veteran leaders know no such quick and easy way exists. It requires patience and discipline and rewards those who’ve a long view of success. On the positive side, people  treated empathetically by leaders tend to 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’ll face.

Defeating Categories

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

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. “They’re wearing an expensive outfit. They must be successful. I want them on my team.” Or “I heard they take a lot of PTO. They must be lazy. I’ll avoid working with them. “

This may sound petty, but if we’re honest, we engage in categorizing frequently, and often automatically. We don’t 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’re different from me. In fact, there are hundreds of ways in which you and I are different.” Most of these differences are invisible and won’t be noticed or discussed. “I like baseball; you prefer soccer. I have lots of siblings; you’re an only child.None of these variances make you better or worse than me. Differences don’t change the reality that we have equal value. Whether you eat vegan and I don’t 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 virtual work environments.  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. 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’m with you.” Most people respond well to these safe, healthy forms of contact. Obviously, the virtual world doesn’t 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 touch-base 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’s far away using screens is a gift. But there are low-tech, low-contact forms that can communicate value in unique ways. Since we’ve practiced active listening, we know about significant events, like birthdays, work anniversaries, major medical procedures, or family events. A simple handwritten note sent through the mail seems quaint, but for that very reason, it stands out and can be meaningful. 

Take The Long Road

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’ll get you there and empathy is the engine that drives it. 

At WorkTango, we’re revolutionizing how the world’s most forward-thinking companies engage and inspire their people. We offer the only holistic Employee Experience Platform built for the modern workplace that enables meaningful recognition and rewards, offers actionable insights through employee surveys, and supports alignment through goal setting and feedback.

WorkTango is built for the workplace we all want to be a part of – where priorities become clear, achievements are celebrated, and employees have a voice. To learn more, check out our platform overview video, or schedule a demo.