Empathy plays a critical role in leadership. It impacts how we interact with and relate to those we lead.
Personally, empathy was a leadership quality near the top of my “needs development” list just a few years ago. Following feedback that I needed to grow this capacity, I invested time and effort to learn more about the science of empathy, ways to integrate it into my leadership style, and practice it to build the muscle. Now, I’m confident that empathy has become a strength of mine, no longer a developmental need.
But experiences this past year have taught me a new dynamic to empathy and leadership that I was blind to before – the need to have empathy up our chain of command or organizational chart. Any search for content on empathy and leadership renders results focused on empathy to better connect with those we lead and build more trusting, cohesive bonds with them; this is a topic I am personally passionate about and have written on. So, while we more often focus on empathy down to those within our teams, many of us simultaneously maintain attitudes of hostility, distrust, and aloofness to those across and the organization – consciously or unconsciously. We often view our bosses, higher staffs, and headquarters as “they” who are the incompetent sources for all our team’s problems. However, Leaders must demonstrate cognitive empathy up – the ability to evaluate a situation and recognize what other people and parties are experiencing. We must have empathy up to our bosses, their staffs, and our higher headquarters as a means of demonstrating ownership and professional maturity, not victimhood or mere criticism. Having empathy up is a way to continue being a good team player and follower within our broader organizational context.
To help us deliberately and thoughtfully put “empathy up” into action as professional leaders, I offer a few considerations (attitudes and perspectives to maintain) and actions to begin employing now.
Things to Consider
- I am a Single Puzzle Piece: Our larger organization and the vast environment that it competes in is a broad puzzle. Assuming we are not at the top of that organization, our team represents just a single piece within that puzzle. Thus, we have blind spots and cannot as easily see the whole picture. It is important to appreciate that.
- My Boss Has Priorities: As leaders, we should maintain three enduring priorities in a particular order – 1) do what’s legally, morally, and ethically right; 2) do what our boss directs; and finally, 3) do what we believe is important for our team. We all have bosses, and they have priorities that we must support. Similarly, our higher headquarters’ staff is also striving to accomplish those priorities. “They” above us are not simply out to get us.
- I am a Leader, Not a Victim: It is common to view ourselves as the victim in challenging situations. It’s easy to cast blame on some other party that is creating or elevating our problems; many seem to simply cause issues for us rather than solve them. Inherent in the title of “leader” is the role of problem-solving, simplifying, and seeking clarity for our team. We are part of the solutions process and must play an active role in meeting whatever the need is effectively and efficiently. We are not victims; we are called to play active roles in solving problems and generate solutions.
Things to Do
- Assume Positive Intent: No one is perfect (individually or collectively as a team), but it is likely that everyone is doing they best they can given their current resources, limitations, and constraints – just as we are. “They” are not the enemy, and we can accomplish more with a little added patience, assuming positive intent, and simply asking, “How can I help?”
- Seek Clarity, Not Mere Criticism: The first step of solving any problem is to in fact define what the problem is. However, it seems so many end at that step, merely identifying the problem in the form of criticism or complaining. In facing challenges or ambiguity, ask questions to understand intent or the context behind a particular decision-making process. This enables you to communicate that down to your team as well.
- Apply Self-Regulation: When things are not going well, we must be slow to anger, deliberate in our reactions, and maintain a professional composure. This demands high levels of emotional intelligence, particularly in our ability to self-regulate. This not only improves our ability to manage the challenges on-hand, but also serves to role-model and encourage others to also.
Demonstrating an ability to have empathy up – to your boss and his/her staff – is a sign of professional maturity as a leader. I encourage us to all think on ways we can better understand their circumstances, challenges, and needs so we can be the best team player and follower that we can be.
If you find this post helpful, subscribe to receive weekly email notifications of new content!