In this blog post from Tracie Dempsey, VP, Customer Success at Suzy, she looks at the widely discussed topic of empathy in leadership. John Jacobs, Co-Founder and Chief Creative Optimist at Life Is Good apparel company, encapsulates its importance perfectly:

“If you know your leader and teammates care about you beyond that day’s performance, it’s more fun and fulfilling to serve a shared deeper purpose. Leaders who intentionally build in those extra minutes to hear people out, offer comfort or advice, and even leave space for laughter and occasional nonsense, are ultimately building a more resilient team.”

Here Tracie shares what she has learnt both from her own leaders and also from feedback from teams that she has led. The reason this is important is simple – people will stick around longer and work harder for leaders who they feel are invested in their personal success.

  1. Get to know your team personally: What do they care about? What motivates them? Here are a few tactics I employ:
    • Personal Sharing Time: Carve out time for each team member to present a short presentation about their personal story, starting with the leader. This works great when getting to know a new team but can also be successful with long-standing existing teams. The teams I have done this with have a lot of fun both creating their presentations and learning about others, forming unique bonds.
    • 1:1 Check-ins: Carve out time in 1:1s to check in personally. This helps build a strong foundation of trust and respect. It also helps recognize when something seems off so that I can ensure they are okay and give them the space they need.
    • Virtual Water Cooler Chats: Our team meets for an hour each week, split into two half-hour sessions. The first is reserved for business, covering topics important to our team’s success. The second is an optional virtual water cooler chat for the team to join in and talk about fun topics and personal matters. During this time, we talk about anything from our families, home remodeling, upcoming wedding plans, etc

2. Balancing empathy with authority: Being an empathetic leader does not mean avoiding constructive feedback or being afraid to hurt feelings when disciplinary action is required. In fact, if you have built a strong foundation of mutual respect, constructive feedback is often received better because the employee knows it comes from a place of genuine care. When I provide feedback, it usually goes something like this: “I know that XYZ is really important to you, and my goal is always to help you succeed and grow both personally and professionally.” Then I deliver the feedback, and we work through the growth plan together.

3. Recognize individuality: Understand each person’s unique preferences and communication styles. Some team members may need more emotional engagement, while others may prefer a straightforward, direct approach.

4. Put yourself in their shoes: If you don’t do their job every day, find opportunities to walk in their shoes to understand the challenges they face. Show them you are not afraid to jump in the trenches with them so that you can help work through effective solutions.

To put it very simply, be human. Being human as a leader means embracing authenticity and transparency while maintaining professionalism. It involves dropping the façade and addressing employees with genuine honesty, even when the news is not pleasant. Instead of sugar-coating situations, a human leader shares the reality of circumstances with empathy and integrity. This approach fosters trust and respect within the team, creating a culture where open communication and mutual understanding thrive. By being real and approachable, leaders can build stronger, more resilient teams that are better equipped to handle challenges and achieve collective success.

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