Dave UlrichGuest Author

Fix Society’s Emotional Deficit Disorder with Empathic Leadership

By | Dave Ulrich | Speaker, Author, Professor, Thought Partner on HR, Leadership, and Organization

By Martin Lindstrom • Best Selling Author on Business and Culture Transformation • martin@martinlindstrom.com, Johnny C. Taylor, Jr. • CEO, Society for Human Resource Management • Johnny.Taylor@shrm.org and Dave Ulrich • dou@umich.edu • Co-Founder, The RBL Group

Everyone hopes and anticipates that the horrific COVID virus will abate in 2021 thanks to vaccines and smart lifestyle choices. While many scars from this global pandemic will remain, our society has also experienced a pervasive emotional deficit due to social injustices (from refugee challenges to racism and sexism) and political divide.

This emotional deficit disorder has been exacerbated with requisite social distancing. It shows up when many of us are less patient with others (even those we love) and less equipped to deal with enduring uncertainty; and prone to fatigue, depression, anxiety, and mood swings.

It shows up at work and provokes more bickering than collaboration; more contempt than civility and comity; more social and emotional isolation than engagement in divergent thinking; and more demand for mental health services. 

How can this emotional malaise be addressed and mitigated?

It is not likely to be solved simply with a vaccine to inoculate against emotional deficit disorder. Nor is it likely to be solved through government legislation that attempts to regulate through policy. The work setting provides an effective environment to foster empathy through emerging leadership emotional savvy. 

Here are a few coaching tips for empathic leadership:

1. Feel empathy.

Honestly, do you know how your staff feels? Living in your employees’ shoes alters your perspective, provides valuable insight, and strengthens the culture of the workplace. That’s why it’s critical to invite those who are NOT like you to join your team (see Team of Rivals). Select people who complement your skills, then give them a voice to move forward. If you disagree, do so without being disagreeable or contemptuous. Feeling empathy for your team inspires respect among co-workers and re-frames future initiatives, issues, and improvements by allowing us to see things from multiple points of view.

2. Show empathy. 

It’s the emotional fabric gluing people together, creating a sense of belonging, and strengthening cultures. Empathy comes from having common sense and caring for employees as people, a topic discussed in Lindstrom’s book The Ministry of Common Sense. Each individual likely has a unique and personal story to tell about both the global pandemic and response to the political and social crises of the day. As a leader, spend time not just talking or listening to employees but really hearing them. When your employees feel understood, they are more likely to work to serve others (like customers) in turn. Empathic leaders are not only authentic, visionary, and engaging, they are also able to show compassion for others, allow disagreements to foster innovation, and create common sense-based organizations without self-inflicted bureaucracy where employees want to give their best.

3. Express appreciation. 

Gratitude is one of the great predictors of personal well-being and of establishing positive relationships. When you focus on what is right and express gratitude for positive progress, you help your employees feel better about themselves. Words of appreciation through personal notes, public recognition, or quiet conversations replace the emotional deficit with goodwill. The gratitude needs to be real, not fake and sincere not staged, but thanking and appreciating others builds a trusting community.

4. Exhibit positive accountability.

Sometimes your employees do not meet goals and/or behave poorly. Accountability can be a positive experience when expectations and metrics are co-created, relevant, and clear; when you have respectful conversations with employees about their performance and potential; and when an alternative solution paves the way for a successful outcome. A test of your empathy as a leader is when employees leave a discussion with you feeling better about themselves. Accountability is also powerful as a means of introducing new behaviors. By showcasing what to do (and what not to do) in a positive way, colleagues can be inspired to work toward personal behavioral changes.

5. Be transparent and humble. 

You ultimately lead most by example. Share your hopes and fears, your successes and failures, and the processes you use to make key decisions. When your employees experience your values in action, they will feel the sincerity of your commitment. Don’t make promises you can’t keep, but live up to commitments you do make. Be Teflon in success by sharing credit; Velcro in failure by taking responsibility. Take responsibility for decisions, but include others to create a shared agenda. Have conversations in the employee space, don’t make them come to you. 

6. Make others better. 

Good leaders use their power to empower others and their strengths to strengthen others. Ask yourself: what can I invite others to do that uses and enhances their skills? Give others opportunities to demonstrate their competence by giving them challenging assignments.

When you lead with empathy, well-being will spread – from your employees to your customers and investors. Seeing the world through your customer’s eyes is what distinguishes successful organizations, for the simple reason that sharing the customer’s perspective builds the organization around true needs, rather than around self-inflicted bureaucracy, rules, and red tape. Caring for your employees creates a virtual cycle that continually delivers market and marketplace value.

Let the work setting be a starting point for replacing contempt and enmity with tolerance and goodwill. And watch it spread.

Republished with permission and originally published at Dave Ulrich’s LinkedIn


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