August 31, 2022

Dierschow: It can take years to develop empathy

It’s taken me many years to develop my ability to empathize with other people. I tend to think of myself as analytical and goal driven, and relating to people isn’t my natural strength.

Taking my first management job, and later increasing my scope, caused me to realize that results are achieved only through the team I lead. After my corporate job I focused on coaching, helping my clients to develop deeper skills of leadership, influence, and driving results.

I’ve learned that the core skill of leading people is simply empathy. It seems a bit weird because it’s not me driving someone else, the way we usually think about leadership.

Empathy is simply understanding others, but with powerful elements of listening at the emotional level. It’s strongly tied into developing Emotional Intelligence (EQ).

Why is this so important? Because people do their best work when they bring their whole selves to the game: skills, intelligence, emotions, inspiration, and dedication.

Yes, including all that messy soft stuff.

You can tell your employees what their job tasks are and how they’ll be measured. Great! But that did nothing to capture their hearts. Why is that important? Because that’s where engagement and loyalty come from.

That’s not something you can buy just by giving them paychecks.

I can tell an employee why I’m excited about something. I can tell them why THEY should be excited about it. But that’s not listening, that’s telling. I guess there’s a bit of a chance that they’ll be excited about the same things I am, but in my experience that’s pretty unusual.

You need to understand and listen for why THEY get engaged in their work. Is it about achievement? Their workgroup? Being challenged?

And on the other side: What is tugging them AWAY from their work? Concerns around their family? Boredom? Frustration with rules and paperwork?

As the leader, your challenge is to try to put your emotions in the same place as theirs. It’s a continuing conversation with each and every individual who looks to you for direction and support. This is often called “listening with your heart,” which I find an appropriate description.

My natural tendency is to communicate the head knowledge very well: tasks, goals, measures — that sort of stuff. Guess what? Rarely do employees get excited about some graph ticking up, even though I feel like I’ve explained it quite well.

That’s not where the inspiration comes from. I’m not connected to their hearts.

So I have to spend some time listening to each person. Individually, and as a team. My goal is to empathize with each person’s situation, and do what I can to help them engage with work.

It’s a dance, of course, because each person is constantly changing and we see interesting dynamics rising up within the team. But a leader who masters this area will build employees who are loyal to their work and the organization.

That brings up the impact of doing this: Many organizations are really struggling to attract and retain the right people. Losing one of your top people can be very painful, costly, and time-consuming.

Here’s the secret that we all know: Engaged employees tend to be productive and loyal. They tend to stick around and become better at what they do.

Your challenge, then, is to develop your own listening, understanding and empathy so you can help your employees to become engaged in their work. Even excited about it.

That’s your job as the leader.

Carl Dierschow is a Small Fish Business Coach based in Fort Collins, specializing in companies committed to improving society and the world. His website is 

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