HR Coach: Try a Little Empathy
BY CHRISTINA DAVIS AND STEPHANIE CARNESIt's Sunday afternoon. Monday morning is less than 24 hours away and it’s already promising to be a busy one filled with trips to the airport and employee shuttles. Steve, one of your most reliable chauffeurs, texts you to say he needs Monday off to deal with a family emergency. You feel frustrated and annoyed since Steve has several runs already assigned, and company policy states that chauffeurs have to ask for schedule changes at least 72 hours before their shift.
You want to tell Steve no but are conflicted: Is it worth drawing a line in the sand at a time when drivers—especially good ones—are so hard to come by, even though someone has to cover those Monday morning runs?
Employee behaviors that inconvenience our business are aggravating, but what if we flip the script? How many times have you called chauffeurs and begged them to work on their scheduled days off, or asked them to please take just one more run after they already put in a long day? I’m guessing that happens more often than a chauffeur requesting last-minute time off. Why is one ok and the other isn’t?
It comes down to empathy, which is the ability to identify with and experience the perspective of another. Empathy isn’t a trait that managers and business owners often embrace, but it can be a great asset for managing employees and interacting with customers.
First, let’s define some terms. Most of us have a general sense that sympathy and empathy have different meanings despite their similarities. Sympathy is like pity: We feel sorry for someone whose dog has died or who has a serious illness. Empathy is a stronger emotion that stems from imagining and relating to how our sick or grieving loved ones feel. Sympathy is compassion at a distance; empathy requires a connection.
Both sympathy and empathy are healthy emotions because they demonstrate that you care about the struggles of another person. Empathy, however, is a more constructive but harder skill to develop.
In recent columns of HR Coach, we’ve discussed management skills and qualities. Being an empathetic leader allows you to understand, relate to, and be sensitive to not only your clients but also your employees. Empathy requires managers to put themselves in their employees’ places and develop a different perspective. Managers can then respond with flexibility and compassion, which will deepen the connection with their employees and create a healthier, more effective workplace.
Sue started as a chauffeur 15 years ago at a large livery company. Eventually, she became an operator herself and now has 10 chauffeurs working for her. Lately, she has had clashes with some of the drivers because of her new scheduling policies. She tried showing sympathy—“Look, I know it’s tough, but everyone has to work at least one weekend day”—but got nowhere. After that, she thought about what it was like to be a new chauffeur and manage a changing schedule. She remembered the stress she felt, not being able to plan her personal life around her work life. Realizing that this uncertainty was the major issue, she came up with a new plan that scheduled weekends out a month at a time and provided a clear process for chauffeurs to trade days with each other. Because Sue empathetically remembered and imagined how her decisions were affecting her driving staff, she was able to come up with a solution that deftly navigated and accounted for everyone’s pain points.
“Both sympathy and empathy are healthy emotions because they demonstrate that you care about the struggles of another person. Empathy, however, is a more constructive but harder skill to develop.”
According to research related to the Myers-Briggs Type Indicator personality test, most managers tend to approach decision-making from a “thinking” perspective: logical, objective, goal-oriented, and depersonalized. While that kind of detached logic is an asset to decisive leaders, it is usually not correlated with natural empathy. “It’s just business” helps to remove the human element from a tough decision or conversation but is at odds with empathetic thinking. This is an obstacle for managers who lead people.
Fortunately, you can build empathy even if it doesn't come naturally:
1. Empathy is a choice. We resist it sometimes—it’s messy and personal. But we can choose to remember when we’ve faced a similar situation (or imagine it if we haven’t) to understand how our employees feel.
2. Try to see things from the other person’s point of view. This will take time, understanding, and the ability to step outside your own biases and opinions.
3. Let the other person know that their perspective is valid, without saying “I know how you feel.” You may think you know, but each person’s reactions and responses to life events are very different at the core.
4. Don’t minimize the issue. Author and speaker Brené Brown says that empathy rarely starts with “at least”: “You broke your leg in a skiing accident? At least now you’ll have some time to relax!”
5. Understand what you are feeling and why you are engaging in empathetic communications with this person. Are you trying to find a means to an end, trying to ensure a goal is reached, or are you authentically trying to understand how this person processes and acts on information so that together you can come up with a solu- tion that suits both your needs?
6. Actively listen to the other person—and this doesn’t just mean with your ears. What body language do you see? Are you getting the whole story, or just pieces of it? Active listening is a communication technique used in counseling, training, and conflict resolution that requires that the listener fully concentrate, understand, respond, and then remember what is being said, and it goes a long way in emotion- ally connecting a listener and a speaker.
7. If you still don’t understand, ask!
Let’s go back to Steve’s request for Monday off. Without empathy, you choose to tell Steve he has to show up for his shift and refuse further discussion. Steve is a dependable person, so he does come in, but he is soured by the experience, is stressed and distracted during his shift because he is worried about his family, and quits a few weeks later, leaving you scrambling to find and train a new chauffeur. With empathy, you put yourself in Steve’s position and realize you would hate to have to choose between your job and your family. You give Steve Monday off and suggest that he contact a few other drivers to see if they can cover his shift. Steve in turn empathizes with your predicament, and he finds his own replacement. Instead of losing an employee, you have built a stronger bond with him and his loyalty to you has increased.
Empathy is a way to build connection. It requires something of us to practice it but it is truly contagious. If you show empathy to your employees, most likely they will show empathy to you, their coworkers, and your clients. And in an industry that is so dependent on people, relationships, and excellent customer service, that’s worth more than money in the bank. [CD1117]
Christina Davis is the HR Director for The LMC Group. She can be reached at christina@LMC.group.
Stephanie Carnes is the client solutions provider for The LMC Group. She can be reached at email@example.com.