Tough Empathy

Tough Empathy

“In a recent study, almost 50 percent of respondents rated an empathic approach to workload balancing as a top factor in how favorably they viewed their organizations during the pandemic.” – McKinsey

The word is that employees want more empathy. Not just employees, either. Voters, volunteers, military, prisons are demanding empathy, as well. In fact, in a world where we are locked up, away from each other except by WhatsApp and Zoom, empathy is at a premium. In Terrific Mentors modest set up, it always has been. I am relieved when a client cries because it means that we have shown enough empathy for them to trust us.

So “empathy” and “tears” – does that mean the world is going soft. As a generalisation for Western developed countries, it probably does, at least somewhat. I think that is a mixed blessing. A gentler world – not a softer one – would be to everyone’s advantage. But if only part of the world becomes gentler while the other part remains more hard-nosed and ruthless than ever, we have a problem. It is very easy to mistake empathy for indiscipline or being excused from handling the tough things of life. It is nothing like that. So what is empathy?

“Empathy is the capacity to understand or feel what another person is experiencing from within their frame of reference, that is, the capacity to place oneself in another’s position. Definitions of empathy encompass a broad range of emotional states.” Wikipedia

Not terribly useful, is it? What we want to know is how we ‘do’ or ‘show’ empathy. And if we adopt a more empathetic approach to our bosses, peers and subordinates will profits improve? I think empathy is more complicated than applying an embrocation. In fact. I don’t much like using the word ‘empathy ‘ for fear that it may be thought an easy add-on, rather in the way that public relations was considered initially. Over time we have come to realise that public relations isn’t something you buy but something you live.

You can train the motions of empathy but they won’t work unless you live them. To live them well you must be highly selective. That means that you must read people extremely shrewdly. You must know whether they need support, encouragement, discipline, a shoulder to cry on,  or shelling or even compelling. Or any of the stages in between. True empathy is discovering all that – and not just once. Your needs and mine – everyone’s, in fact – change from minute to minute. Someone helping them, whether professional or not, must gauge what is needed just as quickly, and apply it kindly and continuously. 

We have many clients who are in a slightly confused state at present. Lockdown, money worries, fear of inadequate facilities and treatment if they get ill, job insecurity, concern over children losing out on valuable education time and, for some, the economic strain this endless printing of money is putting on so many countries all add up to grounds for concern. They come to us often with a worry about their job – everything from lack of empathy to sheer brutality by their bosses. Today, they will talk of toxic cultures (there are many) and dishonest agreements.

Initially we must establish their view of themselves. Rash actions never solve personality problems and understanding what is happening to you is the key to many situations where bosses and company cultures are involved. I made – deliberately – a huge change when I moved from advertising to industry at the age of thirty-six. The new culture was so vastly different from what I had been used to. However, I had patient and sympathetic bosses. They really had empathy. But they weren’t soft. They drew their lines and I had to find them for myself. A thoroughly good and acceptable test for anyone aspiring to lead.

A lot of it has to do with rules. There are two sorts of rules: those you must obey for your and other people’s safety and rules you must interpret intelligently – in other words when they apply and how much they apply. Most rules are made for the guidance of intelligent people. They are expected to interpret them in a sensible way rather than slavishly. Then there are the rules you simply must obey. Knowing the difference is important. Recently we have seen the west interpreting rules that seriously must be obeyed as though they were optional – and that has killed a lot of people. By all means let government have empathy with voters. Let them also say when a rule matters.

My own view of management is that it should be reasonable and easy-going – empathetic partly means just that. The truly skilful manager doesn’t need force, threats or bullying to get good work from his or her team. But the team must know who is in charge and what you expect from them. Confidence of those who work for you is a reflection of your own confidence. The quality of output is always enhanced when a manager has a good mentor-coach.

Alain Bejjani (CEO, Majid Al Futtaim Group) put his finger on it when he said “The people you are leading have big expectations of you. They want you to be perfect and often forget that you are human. But the more human you are with them, the more trust and empathy they lend to you.”

You see, it’s not just “they” who need empathy.

It’s you, too.