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Direct Empathy

March 26, 2020

Some folks have the gift of being direct. Some folks tend to be more empathic. Finding a leader with the ability to do both of those things at the same time is as rare as it is wonderful.

Isn’t that the takeaway of every employee engagement survey or 360? We use a million words and too much of the budget to re-state the same core wish that employees have:

“I want a manager who isn’t afraid to give me critical feedback, but does it with an open mind.”

It follows that if you want to rise above the crowd of mediocre people managers — to create an experience for your team that’s different — then that’s the skill to develop. Let’s call it direct empathy.

To be sure, there is value on both sides of the spectrum — both in directness and in empath(itude).

If your style is more on the direct communication side of things, you’re probably reasonably effective at driving results and overall performance. On the flipside, you may have noticed that your style tends to wear on people. Those results tend to be short term. That performance tends to take the form of playing it safe, with people focused on meeting your expectations, not for the sake of innovation or creating value, but so they avoid critical feedback.

If you’re naturally a more empathic leader, you’ve likely created a culture around you where people feel generally comfortable. That said, you may have noticed that people, knowingly or not, tend to take advantage of your tendency to be emotionally generous. A clear-headed look probably shows you that while your team is comfortable, they’re a bit too much so.

Whichever side you’re on now, how do you build a bridge to the other? Not so you can become someone else, but so you can be a more balanced leader, with two powerful tools in your toolbox instead of one.

If you’re a direct communicator, when it comes to feedback, institute a policy of “ask, don’t tell.” Give yourself the assignment of not giving anyone direct feedback for a week. Watch with curiosity how your team responds, down to their facial expressions and the quality of the work you see move through your inbox. It may feel like you’re being too soft. You’re most likely not.

If you’re an empathic communicator, institute a policy of “show me, don’t ask me.” Give yourself the assignment of requiring people to back up and take the next step on a piece of work themselves, before you share your advice or perspective. Watch with curiosity how your team responds, down to their facial expressions and the quality of the work you see move through your inbox. It may feel like you’re being too harsh. You’re most likely not.

It’s worth calling out the discomfort factor. As you grow as a leader, the things you try that are new should feel out of character — that’s the whole point.

Whichever side of the spectrum you’re starting from, leaning into your weakness is how you demonstrate vulnerability. You do that by showing your team two things at the same time: that you are capable of change, and that it isn’t easy for you either.

Try it, and you might find you become the beneficiary of some direct empathy, from your newly inspired and engaged team.

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