A Leader without Empathy? Nope.

“I’m no good at small talk,” Kate said to me during a session. “I just can’t do that talking about the weather stuff, it’s such a waste of time”.

Do you resonate?

You do?

And if you’d asked me 5 years ago, I would have agreed and told you just how much I couldn’t stand the “how was your weekend” crap that always went on at the office on Monday mornings.

OMG, boring and what a waste of time.

But you know what? It’s not a waste of time.

I've learned it’s actually one of the best uses of your time. Because the benefit of taking a little time each day to connect personally with your co-workers or team is that you’re building trust.

Trust breeds connection and connection breeds understanding and collaboration. It’s only when you take the time to get to know your team or your co-workers that you can really collaborate and really connect and that’s when great work is done.

Have you ever done work with someone who you know, like and trust? They’re someone who seems to get your quirky sense of humour, you trust them so you show that side of you, and someone you feel comfortable sharing ideas and concepts with.

How about all the times you’ve worked with a person who seems like they have a stick up their butt. So much so that you don’t feel you can be yourself or contribute some of the more creative ideas for fear of what they might say?

“Next to physical survival, the greatest need of a human being is psychological survival – to be understood, to be affirmed, to be validated, to be appreciated”.
Stephen Covey “7 Habits of Highly Effective People

Simon Sinek is one of my favourite thought leaders and he has much to say about how empathy improves the workplace.

He says that you cannot be a leader until you understand the benefits of, and learn the skill of empathy.

Real and genuine empathy.

He has a great 15-minute video on YouTube where he talks at length about how leaders need to be empathetic.

If you’re not up for 15 minutes, try this one for just a minute and a half.

I’ve been lucky enough to have been exposed to what genuine empathy in the workplace looks like and have learnt from these leaders and mentors.

Working for a leader who is curious about how my life is and who I am outside work, what motivates me, what I aspire to, what I do on the weekend, who my footy team is.

Back in my warehouse days, there was a senior leader who used to visit maybe once a quarter, so not often. Whenever he visited my Distribution Centre, he would take the time to walk around the massive warehouse and chat with the guys on forklifts.

He didn’t have to do that. It was his choice to walk the floor. It would take him over an hour to get around the whole shed.

Sometimes he’d invite me to go with him. It was magic to watch this leader in action.

He chose to take an interest in every one of those guys.

“Your guys at Carlton aren’t doing too well this year are they, Dave?”.

“John, how the baby doing, keeping you awake?”

“How has this bad weather been for your horses?”, he’d ask Shaun

And he would always ask me where we’d gone flying recently. And although he was terrified of flying in small planes, he always showed genuine interest.

He always listened to the answer. And you knew this because there would be another question, “was it hot there?” or “how long did it take you to get there?”.

And he’d be genuinely interested in the answer.

Although this man was my "2-up manager" (that means he was my boss’s boss’s boss), he was the one who’d call me just to check in on how I was doing one time when I was away for 3 months running the Brisbane Distribution Centre.

And he wasn’t asking how was I doing at work, or how the orders were, or if the budgets were being met.

He was calling to ask how I was doing, being away from home for so long.

That’s empathy, that’s leadership.

And as a result, I did great work, amazing work.

That was over 10 years ago and you know what, I still keep in contact with him.

Empathy is a muscle to be developed.

Step 1 – Make the time to connect.

Like anything new, before it becomes a habit it’s clunky and you may need to schedule the time to connect. Schedule the first hour of your day at the office for this. If not first thing in the day, another time. Practice is the key to building a habit.

You may find people look at you with suspicion cos this is something totally out of character for you. Tell them you’ve just realised you have had a stick up your arse and need their help to remove it.

Like a blind date, you both need to get to know each other.

Start with work-related questions - what improvements they’d recommend, what are their challenges and other safe topics like the weather.

It takes time to build trust where there’s been none before.

Step 2 - Listen

Most of us only listen in order to reply. We’re not really listening, we’re just formulating what we want to say next.

When we listen, we naturally filter what others say through our own lens of experience, our story, our beliefs about the world and how we see ourselves.

This is just how we humans work, it’s a natural defence mechanism.

If you were to hear, see and absorb everything your head would literally explode. We come into contact with millions and millions of pieces of stimulus and data every hour of every day. It’s only because of our filters and our ability to delete the stuff we don’t value or need that we are not puddles of goo on the floor.

We use these filters to make sense of the world around us.

Take the time to walk a mile in their shoes. Seek to understand their point of view.

It may not be the same as yours but maybe understanding their map of the world will help you be a better leader, manager, supervisor or friend to this person.

And they will repay you over time with high-quality work, trust, loyalty and support.

Train yourself to listen to understand. Then ask more questions to really understand.

Step 3 - Be Consistent

Being consistent and practising regularly is how you master anything. This is a muscle to be developed and finessed.

In this era of instant gratification, it can be hard to stick at anything over time. But I promise you this one is worth it.

And those looks of suspicion will stop when you act consistently and show genuine care and interest.

Keep trying it. Practice at home, at the supermarket checkout, networking events, sporting events anywhere that you can strike up a conversation, give it a go.

So, the next time, before you dismiss it as the small talk you hate, think about the trust, the loyalty and the collaboration that you’re building by taking the time to listen and just being curious about someone’s weekend.

Interested to know more about how you can up your Leadership game and achieve your business goals? Reach out for a complimentary consultation.


Emma Taberner is a qualified Leadership and Executive Coach, Speaker, Facilitator, author and self-confessed Human Behaviour nerd. With over 20 years Supply Chain industry experience and 10 years coaching and mentoring frontline leaders, she is passionate about helping people to understand how their behaviours determine their effectiveness and success in business, relationships and in life. Emma works One to One, with groups, both face 2 face and online. She focuses on small business owners and their teams to create capable, engaged leaders and sustainable business growth.

When she’s not building future leaders you can find her flying small planes, being in the outdoors, growing her own food and hanging out with her husband of over 20 years.


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