How Leading With Empathy Is Good For You And Your Team - The Healthy MBA
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How Leading With Empathy Is Good For You And Your Team

A man and woman empathizing

How Leading With Empathy Is Good For You And Your Team

A man wearing a t-shirt and a woman in a yellow dress having a conversation.

Whenever I start a new role, whether it is within the same organization or a new company, I know that I am going to need to spend a good deal of time learning the ropes. I prefer to not walk into a new environment acting like I have all the answers. This gives me time to analyze what is working well versus where I see room for improvement.

Over my 15+ years of experience in corporate and agency environments, I’ve noticed that there is one trait, above all that has helped me navigate my way through joining a new team. That trait is prioritizing empathy, from day 1. The best way to do that, is to let the team collectively decide what is best for them to work together. Hear them out, understand their struggles and work with them to find their best solutions.

Now, the title of this article mentions how having empathy is just as important for you as it is for your team. Follow along on my journey below and you’ll see how.

As both a people manager and project manager, I found three empathy-infused tools to be incredibly valuable to encourage a healthy environment for yourself and your team.


Mentorship is a valuable tool to help team members grow and learn from someone else’s experience and knowledge. However, there can be some downsides, such as the mentee relying too much on someone else’s advice and experience, rather than determining the best path for themself.

Coaching on the other hand, allows the Coach to help guide the Coachee to find the best answer for them in that moment, rather than making suggestions. As an example, if a team member states they are struggling to get their work done on time, rather than recommending solutions, ask powerful questions to help them find the reason behind this and action items to take. Such as:

  • Why do you think this is such a challenge for you?
  • What other factors could be causing this?
  • If money was no object, what would help solve this problem?
  • What resources do you need?

By actively listening, you are preparing yourself for the next question to ask, which will help the team member get to the crux of the issue, to find the best solution for them at that time. Is it possible you know a better solution? Sure! However, that doesn’t matter. You learned that solution through your own experience, your own successes and failures. It is now time for this person to learn and grow from their own trial and error.

Executive Coach, Ed Batista notes in the Harvard Business Review, “Coaching is about connecting with people, inspiring them to do their best, and helping them to grow.”

How this benefits you, as the Coach? You are not responsible for determining the solution for them. You are simply providing guidance, which takes that responsibility off of your shoulders. Don’t get me wrong, this isn’t easy. You have to learn to hold yourself back from sharing what you’ve done in the past. Have patience. Seeing your teammate discover the core issue and determining the solution on their own is incredibly rewarding.

Active Listening

There is a clear difference between hearing and listening. Once again quoting Ed Batista, “Hearing is a cognitive process that happens internally — we absorb sound, interpret it, and understand it. But listening is a whole-body process that happens between two people that makes the other person truly feel heard.”

“There is a clear difference between hearing and listening.”

Imagine you’re in a conflict. You have a differing opinion between your teammate on how to proceed in your project. You both are passionate about your methods and feel adamant about following your own idea. Now, imagine taking a moment to hear why this method is so important to your teammate. Forget your own opinion for a second. Just spend the time to understand where they are coming from. Once you have that insight, as a result of actively listening, rather than pushing your own idea, simply ask for their input on another possible solution and hear why they disagree with it. You may find out how enlightened you are by their reasoning. You may also find that you still disagree with them, but now you have more information to work with. Now it is more of a discussion, rather than an argument.

Starting by actively listening and looking to understand where that other person is coming from, is such an important empathetic tool. It also saves you so much stress and time. The amount of energy spent being frustrated and anxiety-ridden can be alleviated by simply taking the time to hear the other person out. Conserve that energy for the other obstacles that you’ll have to face in your day-to-day.

Creating a Working Agreement

Also called a Social Contract, a Working Agreement is essentially a list of ground rules for your team to abide by. The team collectively determines what needs to happen in order for them to work well. This is usually determined in a meeting where each team member has an opportunity to express what they need to feel successful on their team. Some examples include:

  • No reaching out to team members after 5pm unless it’s an emergency
  • No meetings on Fridays
  • Changes to process should be discussed as a team, not dictated
  • If someone is wearing headphones, don’t bother them, send them a message instead
  • There are no silly ideas, our brainstorms sessions are a safe space

These ideas can even be categorized into sectors relevant to your team. This is a living, breathing document that can be updated on a recurring basis. Maybe for your team, that is quarterly.

This helps get teams aligned on each other’s needs. Atlassian provided some great steps on creating working agreements.

For you, this is helpful because you can express what you need to be successful and determine how that affects your team. Maybe you need to set some boundaries in your schedule. From 4-5pm you’ll be taking your child to soccer practice and can’t be disturbed. Or maybe brainstorm sessions aren’t the best way for you to ideate, and you prefer to listen and come back with ideas later. These are all examples of ways to communicate how you work best so your team can be aware and help foster that environment for you and themselves.

By everyone on the team seeing visually what’s required to work well together, they can come up with solutions on the best way to collaborate, innovate and activate amazing work.

At the end of the day, practicing empathy is not just for your colleagues but for you as well. It helps you become more aware of their needs and how you can help them get there. Additionally, it promotes a more open environment, a safe space if you will, that garners differing perspectives to find the best solution for everyone. It’s also contagious. As you’re practicing empathy, others will see the benefits and very well may start implementing it into their day-to-day.

Interested in hearing more? I recently conducted a webinar for Mural on Empathy In Agile: The Key to Unlocking Team Engagement & Productivity.

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