SXSW Exclusive: The Rise of the Empathetic Leader

empathetic leadership in human resources, a SXSW exclusive

I’ve written recently about the skills needed to be a great leader that Google revealed after talking to their employees for a 10-year study. Empathy, concern, and respect are critical to a high-functioning team. Inclusivity is high on the list, and so is civility. Cultivating empathetic leaders in the workplace is crucial to the success of any company.

Inspired by a SXSW 2019 session, A Crash Course in Empathy and Leadership led by Michael Ventura, CEO & Founder of Sub Rosa, I wanted to talk about empathy as a leadership trait and how civility in the workplace is more important today than ever before. Here, I’ll cover four things that today’s leaders need to do to be more empathetic.

 

1. Strong interpersonal and communication skills

Communication can be tricky. Some people have a knack for it, others have to work to develop their capacity for being open and clear. As a leader, your voice is often the most influential in the room. Good managers also know how to listen more than they speak. Giving your employees the space to contribute and knowing when to let them talk is key to effective communications.

A good manager has to set the tone for communications. Clear and concise communication, frequent check-ins with the team, one on one and face-to-face meetings, and consistent messaging underpin how your team works with you and with each other.

 

2. A focus on inclusivity:

A good leader is invested in the success of his or her employees and encourages contribution.

For an employee to feel comfortable sharing ideas, they have to first feel safe and supported. An environment that doesn’t welcome contribution will always be stagnant and a stagnant team isn’t a high-value team. This is true of diversity as well. Seeking various points of view combats unconscious bias in products, services, and the company at large.

This means leading from a position of openness, as well as being more of a mentor or coach than a (micro) manager. Results and KPIs are absolutely important, but in order to achieve them, your team must have room to innovate and develop their skills. Some of the best managers I’ve ever met are the ones who help identify the talents of their team and provide them with feedback, tools, and coaching to be successful. When you invest your time into your team, they’ll invest in the success of your team as a whole.

 

3. Civility as a shared behavior

At the SHRM 2018 Conference, I attended a session on “Mastering Civility: A Manifesto for the Workplace” led by Christine Porath, Associate professor, McDonough School of Business, Georgetown University. She explained that a lack of civility in the workplace can cost a company hundreds of thousands of dollars in human resource hours with regards to conflict management, as well as in turnover from employees who choose to leave a toxic workplace. Conflict resolution is a solution, not a preventative measure. It’s important to consider setting standards for your workforce that align to company values for how we treat one another.

It’s important that workplace leaders model the behavior they wish to teach. In order to effectively address incivility, training for team leaders and managers should include respect and relationship building. Getting to know employees on a personal level (which overlaps with hiring leaders who have strong interpersonal skills) shows respect and helps build trust. When it comes to workplace communication, your company can set the standard for civility higher than simple conflict avoidance. Making civility as important as team goals and results is key to building a culture of respect and positive engagement.

 

4. Recognizing success

As humans, we want to be rewarded and recognized for our work, but sometimes it is hard as a leader to remember to recognize your team members and peers. When recognition programs are linked to your company values—when they reinforce the outcomes and behaviors most associated with your company’s brand—the programs are more likely to lead to a higher perceived return on investment among employees.

What this means for workplace leaders is that we must genuinely understand each role on our team, how success is defined for that role, and what achievements and milestones should be applauded outside of a general performance review. Some performance management software, like 15 Five, have recognition built in – so that managers can give team members public shout-outs and “virtual high-fives.” While this is a great feature for a weekly report, we shouldn’t become so dependent on software that throwing out the virtual high-fives every week feels like a stretch. In order to sincerely recognize our team members, we must listen, learn, and seek to understand.

Finally, the cost of not having empathetic leaders is higher than you’d think and the ramifications of poor employee engagement and experience can last for years. High turnover can be a huge expense, so investing in leaders that are intuitive, have high emotional intelligence, and understand how important it is to engage a workforce with sincerity is a leadership imperative. Happy employees tend to be better, more productive, and stay with your company longer. Even when they do leave, they’re more likely to be an excellent source of new employee referrals if they had a good experience, which in turn has positive lasting implications for your employer brand.

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Jessica Miller-Merrell

Jessica Miller-Merrell

Jessica Miller-Merrell (@jmillermerrell) is a workplace change agent, author and consultant focused on human resources and talent acquisition living in Austin, TX. Recognized by Forbes as a top 50 social media influencer and is a global speaker. She’s the founder of Workology, a workplace HR resource and host of the Workology Podcast.

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