Fast-Tracking Leadership: 6 Steps for Mastering Empathy

"What is empathy and how can I learn it FAST?" That was the question coming from the other end of the Skype screen. Eric's boss had just given him some performance feedback indicating that empathy would be the next leadership skill for Eric to master to continue on the high performers' track in his organization. Now Eric wanted a coach to guide him in developing this ability.

"Empathy," I explained, "is the ability to identify what other people are feeling."

It's important for leaders to understand that people are wired differently and can have vastly different emotional responses. For example, if I brought my puppy into a business meeting, some people would immediately feel joy and become energized by the temporary distraction. Others, however, may become annoyed about being taken off the agenda and feel stress over wasting valuable meeting time. When I leave with my puppy, the dog lovers will be awash in a positive emotion, while the agenda devotees will be stewing in negative emotion. Great leaders know how to tune into these differences among their employees and use this knowledge to intentionally build rapport.

To help Eric master the leadership skill of empathy, I advised him to follow these 6 steps:

  1. Learn about the 7 core emotions. The 7 core emotions are love, joy, hope, envy, sadness, anger, and fear. Each of these emotions evokes a chemical response in the body, what I call an "emotional marinade" that can have an enormous impact on productivity and workplace interactions. The top 3 emotions--love, joy, and hope--have an invigorating effect, while the bottom four--envy, sadness, anger, and fear-- are debilitating in one form or another.
  2. Develop an awareness of emotional triggers. In order to understand the emotions of his direct reports, Eric needed to first tune into his own. I advised him to track his emotions throughout the day and to identify what triggered those responses. If he felt irked or irritated by an interaction, he needed to trace the feeling back to its source. Likewise, if he felt excited or energized, he should reflect on what had inspired him. Tracking his own emotions would give Eric insight into the ways his own bosses and peers kindled productivity, collaboration, and excellence.
  3. Understand "emotional wake." Once Eric had a working grasp of his own emotions, I invited him to reflect on the impact he was having on others. "Visualize a boat moving through water," I advised. "Notice the wake it leaves behind. Now imagine that you also have a wake after having a conversation with someone.  Do you leave him or her in the choppy seas of negative emotion--feeling frustrated, demoralized, anxious or afraid? Do you foment drama by giving inappropriate attention to back-biting or whining?  Or do you leave a trail of calm, of confidence or excitement?"
  4. Learn the emotional cues of others. While Eric had some idea of his emotional wake, he couldn't be sure how people might be reacting to him. I continued to coach him on paying attention to body language and other emotional cues that might be telling. Generally, positive emotional states are easy to read; smiles, laughter, upbeat tone of voice are clear indicators of healthy, affirming interactions. Negative emotional states, however, can require more people-reading skill. Lack of eye contact can indicate a lack of confidence in speaking with you or possibly an unstated conflict.  Withdrawn behavior such as noticeable silence in a meeting or physical distance--choosing a seat farthest from you-- can suggest lack of alignment, tension, or disagreement. These are cues that you need to connect with the other person and confront the undercurrents that may be undermining your ability to work together.
  5. Practice building rapport. After working with Eric to develop his emotional intelligence, I shared some suggestions for practicing empathy with his direct reports. "Use questions as a way of simultaneously expressing concern and inviting people to engage," I advised. For example: "Mary, I sense that you are frustrated. How can I be more supportive to you and your goals?" Deeply listen to the response, and repeat back the main points of what you have heard. This demonstrates that you are tracking both the content and the emotional tone of what Mary is saying, and it allows Mary to feel heard.  
  6. Incorporate empathy into leadership style.  Since Eric was clearly determined to be a star performer, I also coached him on evolving a leadership style that would maximize rapport.  I encouraged him to find ways to acknowledge what people are feeling and at the same time move them forward. For example: "Bob, it must be frustrating to see your project killed after months of hard work, but I have no doubt that you will be able to use what you have learned with great success in your next project." I also advised making it a habit to notice effort and express gratitude frequently as this intentionally creates a positive emotional wake.

For anyone who wants to get on the fast track of leadership development, the secret is to slow down and tune into other people's emotions. Practicing empathy will pave the way for more authentic communication around workplace issues and will also make it easier to build the connections that inspire loyalty and excellence.