Over the years, I’ve worked for a variety of different managers. One manager I had took command and control to a new level. He mandated that his staff attend 7am onsite meetings, in the dead of the Minnesota winter. Commuting to work in negative 20 degree temperatures, to arrive by 7am, was beyond miserable. It was almost as bad as sitting through his staff meetings.
Another manager I had would call me into his office to have “one on one” meetings. A more appropriate meeting title would have been “one”, because he was the only one who talked. He talked at me, about himself mostly. He also regurgitated high level corporate jargon he overheard in leadership meetings. One time after leaving his office, a coworker handed me a pen and said “do you need this to jab yourself in the eye”? I guess I wasn’t the only one who suffered through these one on ones.
I could go on about bad experiences with managers but I’ve also had some great experiences. The managers I loved had some great qualities. They were compassionate, kind, encouraging, intelligent, self-aware and trust worthy.
The one thing all my best managers had in common was empathy.
Empathy is one of the pillars of emotional intelligence. The word empathy derives from the Greek word empathies, “feeling into”. Empathy is the ability to sense the emotions of those around us. People who have strong empathy can feel the feelings of others as if they were their own. Empathy is different from sympathy, which is feeling self-pity or sorry for others. With empathy, we may not even agree with others, but we can understand and sense how they feel.
When I would sit down with my empathetic managers, I felt they wanted to hear how I was doing. It wasn’t only about the work, it was also about me as a person. They listened and cared. They didn’t try to have all the answers. Instead, they were able to connect. We had a dialogue between two people who wanted to help each other.
If you are in a position of managing others, I challenge you to ask yourself if you have empathy? Are you getting to know your team, and are you trying to help them be successful and grow, or are you using people as a means to get ahead in your own career?
None of us want to think we would use people to get ahead, yet this behavior can happen to anyone. It takes self-reflection and humility to get an accurate picture of how we treat people.
One of the best tools we can use to improve empathy is to ask for feedback. Ask your direct reports and colleagues how they feel when talking and working with you. What do they like, and what do they wish was different? With direct reports, it may help to get anonymous feedback (surveymonkey provides a good online tool). This allows people to be comfortable telling you the hard truth. Once you get honest feedback, you can then take steps to improve your empathy.
I once got feedback, through an anonymous peer review, that I was too controlling of my project team. The ironic thing was that I always thought I was the opposite. I needed this feedback to get a clear picture of reality. In my case, I had to take steps to change how I interacted with the team. I still need to work on this and watch how I’m treating others.
In summary, I hope I can emulate my favorite managers, and show empathy as they did. I know it takes work, but if I can continue to practice and get feedback from others, I know I can improve.
I’ll end with a quote one of my favorite authors, Steven Covey. In the 7 habits of highly effective people, Covey writes: “If I were to summarize in one sentence the single most important principle I have learned in the field of interpersonal relations, it would be this: Seek first to understand, then to be understood. This principle is the key to effective interpersonal communication” (Covey, 1989).
About the Author: Mike MacIsaac is the owner and principal consultant for MacIsaac Consulting. Mike provides leadership as an IT Project and Program Manager as well as an Agile Scrum Master. You can follow Mike on Twitter@MikeMacIsaac or subscribe to Mike’s blog.