I recently spoke to an employer who hired several recent college graduates. After 90 days, he met with each of the new team members to assess how they were doing. In a meeting with a 23-year-old young man, the employer reviewed his positive qualities, then proceeded to challenge him to shoot for a higher level of excellence. The employee wasn’t measuring up to some of the company’s standards. It was at this point, the young team member interrupted him, and it got awkward.
The team member told the employer he wasn’t being empathetic.
I happen to know this organization very well—and that employer is extremely empathetic and caring toward his team. The problem was, the young team member has a different understanding of the word. In fact, he may have forgotten what genuine empathy really is. Seventy years ago, the word could scarcely be found anywhere. In today’s world, however, where empathy is a rare commodity, we’ve begun to search for it everywhere, and we have distorted the notion of how to lead a team, teach a class or parent a child with authentic empathy. Let me explain.
What Is Empathy?
One simple definition of empathy is “the ability to understand and share the feelings of another.” Based on this definition, it is actually impossible to have too much empathy. It is possible, however, to allow your empathy (whether it is high or low) to become an obstacle to effectively teach, parent or manage young people.
To some leaders, empathy seems “soft” or wimpy. To others, empathy has become an excuse for not holding students or employees accountable to a standard. After all, we rationalize by thinking, “Look what they’ve gone through.” We assume if we just used nicer, gentler approaches to leadership, things would work out fine. Neither of these two perspectives is accurate.
In fact, consultant Andrew Oxley calls this the “corruption of empathy.” I agree wholeheartedly. When we don’t understand empathetic leadership, we assume it’s soft, nice and even wimpy. Nothing could be further from the truth. Empathy does take into account the emotions of another, but it also demonstrates care by being truthful—even when it hurts in the moment. It frequently involves frank and honest conversations about how to improve. It may mean challenging someone to a better performance because you believe it’s in them. It is speaking the truth with love.
Someone who appears to be empathetic may only be self-serving “people-pleasers.” They don’t want to do or say anything that would make someone else dislike them, so they simply communicate sentiments that mirror the other person.
So How Do We Lead with Empathy?
Let me suggest some counter-intuitive examples that illustrate empathy:
For Teachers: “I know this assignment was hard and you don’t think you can write a better paper, but I’ve seen your writing and it’s good. Really good. I believe you can improve on this project and do something that makes me want to read every word.”
For Employers: “I appreciate the effort you gave on the proposal. I also realize it took more time than you expected. Believe it or not, it still needs some more work before we can send it to our client. I thought about letting Heather take a stab at it, but I actually believe you’re the right person for this task. I want you to try again and give it everything you’ve got.”
For Parents: “I’m sorry you feel stressed out right now. But even though you feel like you’ve worked hard, I still need you to take out the trash. You may not realize it until later, but just doing this chore will give your brain a break by doing something totally different than homework. We all pitch in with chores as a family, and it actually develops us into well-rounded people.”
For Coaches: “It always feels good to win. I’m proud of you as a team for what you accomplished in our last game. But even though the score was in our favor, I care too much to let you play the way you did. I did not see the best version of you on that field last week. We’re going to practice on the drills that will strengthen us in our weak spots. When we’re done, you are going to love who you’ve become.”
The truth is—genuine empathy is both caring and challenging to students. It believes the best about them and because it cares for the young person’s future, it shows up most vividly when it beckons them to live their best life.
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