Thinking Like a Leader – Empathy

By Mark Rulle

Empathy is feeling what someone else is feeling (or as near as we can possibly get to it).  The action most often associated with empathy is the ability to “put yourself in their shoes.”

One might wonder how we can ever put ourselves 100% in someone else’s shoes – when it is impossible to know all of the background of the particular individual, all the struggles and barriers they have overcome, their personal needs and wants, and the things that keep them up at night.  The reality is we can’t.  However, the goal of thinking like a leader is that we try.  The act of “trying” to understand someone else’s background, struggles, barriers, needs, and wants recognizes we will never be 100% successful, and yet for me, it is knowing this that helps me keep this exercise in perspective.

By knowing I’ll never know it all, I am motivated to continue to try to understand – be open to understanding.  By knowing I’ll never know it all, I am constantly wondering if my current experiences (disappointment, anxiousness, concern, etc.) are also the experiences of others…and if they are, what impact is it having on them?  By knowing I’ll never know it all, I leave a little bit of space of acceptance of their reality which doesn’t and will probably never, make sense to me.  And I accept it as their unique experience as a human being – an experience I am not able or privileged to have.  With that, I always have a bit of doubt.  A small space where the knowledge isn’t available and the answer isn’t clear.

Over time I’ve learned to accept that space and still make all of the decisions and move as quickly as need be through barriers and a changing environment so that I’m performing to my own (and others) expectations.  The space reminds me to always question my “certainty” about a particular situation.  The questioning doesn’t necessarily delay the decision but instead, leaves it open in case more information comes to light and sometime later a different decision needs to be made.  Being empathetic ensures I don’t get “locked in” to that decision, that my ego doesn’t box me in to accepting something different.

Let us not mistake a leader seeking empathy as a weakness (in our world today we often ascribe weakness to the person who listens to an opposing point of view).  Just like seeking contrary/opposing information is a smart move by a leader (new information may lead to new insights and better decisions), being empathic is also smart.  When a leader is truly empathic they are showing a willingness to listen, to consider a different side/approach, and to be vulnerable.  These activities improve trust with others, make the leader more approachable and, when the leader ultimately has to make a decision (even one that is not favorable to the audience) their credibility and competence in decision making is not questioned because of their pattern of empathetic behavior.

It is important that we recognize one important tenet regarding empathy before we insert it into the training of new leaders.  While the actions around empathy can be taught, sincerity cannot be taught.  A leader who employs the behavior of empathy but who doesn’t really feel empathic is worse than the leader who has no empathy at all.  People, nearly all people, know when a person is being sincere and when they are not.  The good news is that sincerity can make up for a lack of skill in employing empathy.  Being sincere about understanding someone else allows the other person to excuse the fumbling or inadequacies that come with trying something new.  So, think like a leader – when you really want to empathize, give it a try.  In time, it will become a part of who you really are.

Mark Rulle is President of the Maryland Healthcare Education Institute.

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