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How Empathy Can Make You a Better Leader

Recently, I was out on a shopping trip at a department store, and I saw an employee scrambling to help the customers at the fitting room. While most people were patient to wait for their turn, some were frustrated by the wait time and didn’t like how she was asking them to put the clothes back on the hanger and return the “number” of clothes to get the correct count. Customers were likely thinking: “how could this have been a better customer experience?”

While the employee was trying to do her best in that situation, she was being criticized, and some customers even yelled at her that she can’t “make them” put the tried-on clothes back on the hanger. It was a crowded place, so everyone wanted to be taken care of and made a priority because they had other places to be. But at the same time, the employee was trying very hard with very little help from her colleagues (maybe they were low on staff).

As a silent spectator of the situation, I thought: “isn’t that the corporate situation we observe, where there is a constant struggle for resources, aggressive priorities to get things done, and demand to deliver on deadlines?” Where is the empathy in these scenarios?

As a woman in engineering, who has risen up to a senior management position, I have encountered my fair share of difficult interpersonal situations while on the job. These have ranged from encouraging a frustrated engineer who is stuck on a problem while building out a product, mediating disagreements between colleagues, and even comforting someone while at work after they’ve received upsetting personal news.

In all of these cases, there is one invaluable skill that has helped me to handle each instance with grace, build professional connections and advance my career: empathy.

Sadly, however, it is often overlooked in fast-paced businesses where individuals just want to get ahead at any cost. Let’s look at why being empathetic can make you a better employee, colleague, leader and person overall.

What is empathy?

Empathy is defined as the ability and willingness to listen to and understand what others are trying to convey. It’s a skill that you can acquire by carefully trying to understand others’ views. It is likely not in the employee handbook, and your manager likely won’t teach you about it in your onboarding training. It comes from within and being attuned to others.

Why should leaders have empathy in the workplace?

A recent study found that 87 percent of CEOs see a direct link between workplace empathy and business performance, productivity, retention and general business health.

Inshort, promoting empathy—either as an individual or as a company—actually aids in career and business success.

In my role, when I get on customer calls, empathy is a constantly useful tool. It helps to bridge the gap between the engineering/implementation sides and solve real world use cases, on how our customers are using the product. The more I fully listen and understand, the easier it is for me to propose a better solution to the customers.


How to create empathy in the workplace

1. Actively listen to your direct reports/customers:

When your direct report approaches you to discuss a problem, stop thinking about that other thing you were working on, put your phone aside, pay full attention and listen to what the other person is trying to convey. Better listening means solving their problems quicker than you expected.

 “When you talk, you are only repeating what you already know. But when you listen, you may learn something new.” -Dalai Lama

2. Figure out the gaps by asking the right questions:

When you actively listen, try to ask the right questions and determine if there are any gaps in your process/product. Asking the right questions is a skill, because there are risks associated with derailing an on-track conversation and opening up a can of worms.

Balance out this act by asking only required questions. If there is something else that needs to be discussed, park it and come back to it when the original discussion is done.

If you work in engineering, bridge the gap by designing a better process, getting rid of redundant processes or by implementing improved technical solutions. It may just be a matter of developing a script to automate some job or auto approval of some job status to minimize the delay in the approval process.

3. Try to remain calm and avoid coming off as overwhelmed:

When you are on a deadline and under pressure to deliver, and a colleague approaches you for help towards the end of the project deadline, how do you feel? Overwhelmed/annoyed?

How did you handle it? Politely? Or rudely?

While you have deadlines to finish, try to understand that they may have one too. Communicating in an open manner that you are busy right now and will reach out to that person at a later time; or pointing out someone who can help them in the interim, may help you in achieving some trust and respect from your colleague as opposed to pushing them away.

This also contributes to creating an empathetic and compassionate work culture. Remember, this culture can’t be established overnight. Everyone will have to contribute towards it, thoughtfully.

4. Identify the attention areas/problems:

Figure out what you need to focus on first. Analyze the impact/effort in fixing something. It may be tech debt or a process or both, which one will get you covered long term? Are there any low hanging fruits you can take care of to get this problem sorted out? Help your direct report/coworker prioritize the issues at hand. Sometimes teamwork can also work magic!

5. Remember you’re not an island:

Bridge gaps, reach out and accept people rather than making opinions about them. Don’t assume but communicate openly. Schedule 1:1 meetings with different people–or just an informal talk around the water cooler will help you get to know the person better.

6. Empower your decision makers to make the right decisions:

Guide them toward the right steps. Don’t micromanage, but don’t overlook either.

When you are invested in a customer/coworker,they deserve your full attention. If they are equipped to make the right decisions, that will minimize the delays in achieving a focused goal. This will help you save time and help them advance in their career.

“Leadership is about empathy. It is about having the ability to relate to and connect with people for the purpose of inspiring and empowering their lives.”  -Oprah Winfrey

Bio: Shilpa Narsikar joined WhiteHat in 2014, currently working as a senior manager of Engineering. Shilpa is an immigrant from India and has a master’s in computer science from Illinois Institute of Technology, Chicago. At WhiteHat, she is currently managing the development teams in San Jose, California and Belfast, UK. Her team is focused on addressing the critical reported product bugs and enhancements for all their customers. She is also leading the Women of WhiteHat initiative to get more women leaders in the cybersecurity space. In her spare time, she likes to bake 3D cakes and paint silk scarves.