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How Empathy Can Build Better Workplace Relationships | Productive Flourishing

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Editor’s note: This is a guest post by Mike Ambassador Bruny.

There is an interesting dynamic that can exist between leaders and those they lead. Many employees complain about their leaders, and many leaders complain about their employees. Having been in both roles and received training in various leadership and management programs, I wanted to provide some insights into things I’ve seen and experienced in hopes that leaders get more out of their employees and employees get more out of the work they do.

In 2006, I was an Operations Manager (OM) for Intel. I was new to people management when I walked into a room with a group of other high potential young professionals of color for a program by The Partnership, Inc. in Boston, Massachusetts. We were divided into several subgroups for an exercise. Most of the subgroups were instructed to take off their shoes while a select few were allowed to keep theirs on. The instructions were designed to represent what it felt like to work in different roles inside an organization. There were workers, creatives, managers, and leaders. Each of us were given instructions specific to the group and role we belonged to.

Managers were given the difficult task of trying to fulfill demands from the workers and leaders simultaneously. Ultimately, they made decisions that would be seen as a benefit to either the workers or the leaders. The people playing the manager role left the exercise feeling the pressure of that managerial role in an organization.

When we debriefed it was amazing to see how the participants in the program had really taken the exercise seriously. They even provided scathing complaints about each other. I left with two key lessons:

That experience shaped my perspective as a manager and caused me to focus on people and their environment and less on their formal titles. (It’s also why, moving forward, I’ll refer to managers as leaders. They lead their team and have to make decisions all day long as they manage stakeholders.) My experience opened my eyes to the opportunity for increased empathy on the part of both leaders and employees in the workplace, too. Employees and leaders want to feel seen, which has less to do with the eyes and more to do with the heart — You feel me?

Your Employees Want to Be Seen

As a leader you are accountable for how your team functions. On some days it feels like everyone is in sync with you. On other days it feels like everyone on your team is against you. You sometimes have to make tough calls and deal with many situations where you can only share some of the information with your team. However, there is a good chance you can probably share more information or share limited information in a way that makes your team feel like they are part of the process and not that things are just happening to them.

At the end of the day, you are expected to serve as an example for your team. You don’t have to like your team but you do have to do what it takes to help them be successful. Below are a few tips that can help you develop empathy and have better relationships with the individuals on the teams you lead:

Leaders Want to Be Seen, Too

As an employee it doesn’t take much to garner an us (employees) against them (leadership) mentality. Things are sometimes ambiguous. Leaders cannot necessarily share everything they know about a situation for a number of reasons. That can create a feeling of “I know they are hiding something.” It is easy to forget that the “leadership” is made up of individuals who are trying to do the best job they can, for the company and for the employees. Below are a few tips employees can use to be more empathetic toward the leadership and start getting more out of the work they do:

Leaders and employees need to get to know each other, develop empathy for one another, and keep communicating. It isn’t just up to the leaders. It’s up to all of us, working together for the good of each other and the good of the company. () The following questions can help with that. Use them to get to know leaders and employees at a deeper level:

How do you build a healthy company? Do you think empathy is an important quality in the workplace? Why or why not?

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