Leading with empathy

Good leadership/management takes empathy and compassion for the people you lead. You can lead without it, it may even be today’s norm – but you cannot be a good leader or manager without it.

If you lead without empathy or compassion you will end up seeing people as resources that can just be replaced and manipulated in any way you like and then bluntly discarded. You may even end up having an entire department dedicated to the extraction of resources from humans, and in some evil post-apocalyptic World, you may even end up calling it Human Resource Management – oh wait….

Leading with empathy has sort of become the anti-norm. Leaders, companies and perhaps even society has moved in a direction where leaders and managers are expected to keep a “professional distance” from the people they lead. What has pushed on in this direction is hard to say with certainty. But I can see one potential explanation.

Who benefits?

As any good investigator you can always revert to the good old; “who benefits?” With employees and managers distancing from each other, who benefits? From an employee’s standpoint I do not see much gain. Even if you do not like your manager it would be a gain if your manager liked you and felt compassion and empathy. Being fired by someone who cares for you must, all things being equal, be better than being fired by someone who does not. So from an employee’s/subordinates point of view I cannot see many benefits.

Where I can see “benefits” is from the manager/leaders point of view. From their point it is easier to manage, criticize and fire someone if they are distant from them. Compare kicking someone out of a chatroom to asking someone in person to leave the room. The first is easy, the latter a lot harder.

But this is a feature and not a bug.

It should be hard and uncomfortable to move people around, criticize them and not the least fire them. They are real people. They do have families. They do have people that care for them and they do have people that rely on them.

This does not mean that you should never fire someone or that your company has suddenly turned into a charity. Firing people is part of your job as a manager. It can be the right solution for both the company and the employee. But it should be hard. Because it does have consequences.

Skin in the game

If you as a manager does not have skin in the game and does not feel the uncomfortable sting of having to confront someone with the fact that you have to let them go, then it becomes too inconsequential and hence too easy.

You are paid to deliver results, make sure that things go smoothly and that your subordinates are in the best position to do their job efficiently. If you do not have skin in the game, care for your subordinates and feel compassion, then it becomes mechanical and false. You can go a long way with force and pressure of rank, but it will never be optimal and it should never be the default.

I have seen a lot of managers lead with “brute force”. It almost seems like the default. But it is too “easy” and it is too short-sighted. No one have ever delivered their best work with a gun to their head. Perhaps their most important work – in keeping them alive – but never their best work.

People are social creatures. We thrive with relations and will go a long way for people we care for and people who care for us. Managers that try to keep a “professional distance” rob themselves, the employee and the company of great work.

Great work happens when the employee finds meaning in the task in relation to the overall mission. Plus the manager and the company cares for the employee, so he/she feels valuable and feels trust. Being seen as a simple (Human) “resource” does none of this.

Of course caring for your employees and developing strong relationships with them also makes it harder to make difficult decisions. But it should be difficult. You are dealing with another human being, a colleague and hopefully a friend. They should not necessarily be your best friends, but you should feel empathy towards them and care for them.

If they do not perform then you should try to make it work, but if it does not, then you should fire them, both for your and their sake. Help them find other work if you can – you care for them – remember?

By forming better and closer relationships with their subordinates a lot of manager are required to make their job a little harder. But in my book that is a necessary evil that makes both themselves, their employees and the company better of – so what are we waiting for?