Finding balance in empathetic leadership

Empathy is an essential component of being an effective manager. Here are a few ways to keep balance in mind while working toward effective, empathetic leadership.

Q: I am a manager of a Fortune 500 company and trying hard to balance being empathic with staff while making sure that the work gets done well and on time. Any suggestions?

Over the past three years, there’s been a renewed emphasis on empathy in management as a result of the COVID-19 pandemic. Managers needed to shift their paradigm and understand that many employees were encountering new challenges in the way they lived and worked, and understanding those challenges helped alter their approach to ensure the best outcomes for their teams amidst new challenges.

Being a manager is a juggling act of two things: getting work done and caring about how the work gets done. Empathy is an essential component of being an effective manager – connecting with others to understand how to help them bring their best efforts to the table is vital in any leadership role – but there needs to be a balance. Here are a few ways you can keep that balance in mind while working toward effective, empathetic leadership.

Evaluate your options from an empathetic place

As a manager, you have a broad understanding of your employees’ scope of work, and you can use that understanding to put what your employees need in the context of the work they must do – and the support you can offer them.

For example, if an employee is dealing with a suddenly ill child but has a report due to you that day, an empathetic leadership choice would be evaluating the work they’ve already done, how much of that report you actually need to complete your task, and who else might be available to assist this employee so they can take care of the issue in their personal life.

Management is about resource allocation, after all, and allocating the resources of time and support to employees should be a decision made from empathy. It’s likely never an all-or-nothing game; there’s always a grey area that you can find to empower your employees from a place of empathy while also getting the work done.

In the same vein, leaving your door open (literally or figuratively) to employee concerns is another important element of empathetic leadership. Hearing and understanding what employees really need to do their work well is a great way to be sure you can evaluate their work within the full context of what they need to do their jobs – and it ensures employees feel they can come to you with concerns or issues as they arise.

Understand your employees’ working environment

Lately, we’ve been seeing more and more organizations thinning out their workforce through layoffs and other restructuring measures. Not only are people being taxed at work as a result – they’re picking up the slack of those who have been laid off – but they’re also losing the capacity to think about and learn skills that build their careers. They’re too focused on the momentum of getting tasks done day-to-day that seeing the bigger picture isn’t a priority.

Working under those conditions is challenging for everyone, and it’s important to take the work environment into consideration when looking at how and where people on your team are struggling. Building opportunities for collaboration and cooperation has never been more important, and consistently evaluating what’s working and what’s not in that vein is one of the best things you can do to make sure your team is still able to support one another despite all the other pressures they may have to contend with.

Returning to the example from earlier – where an employee must take a day off to manage a sick child unexpectedly but has an unfinished report due to you that day – having a broad understanding of everything on your other employees’ plates can serve you well here. If you know not only who might be free to finish this report, but also who would be willing and able to do so to help their colleague, you’re able to approach that person trusting they have the emotional intelligence to want to support someone going through a difficult time. You can delegate this work to them knowing that you’ve built a team of people who genuinely want to support one another – which is, at its core, what great management is about.

Ultimately, being an empathetic leader is about making connections – both in aligning employees with resources and making sure they can support each other so they can do the best work possible. No one wants to rally around a manager that pits colleagues against one another, but demonstrating you’re committed to making sure everyone has the people and resources they need to do their best work will go a long way toward building a leadership model that focuses on getting good work done and on how that can best happen.