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  • Writer's pictureShandy Welch

#8 Empathy and Leadership

#8 Empathy

em·​pa·​thy ˈem-pə-thē

1: the action of understanding, being aware of, being sensitive to, and vicariously experiencing the feelings, thoughts, and experience of another of either the past or present without having the feelings, thoughts, and experience fully communicated in an objectively explicit manner

Not to be confused with sympathy, which shows pity or sorrow for another. Empathy requires a more profound connection or interest in understanding how another might feel and experience a situation. While I believe this is easier for some than others, I also believe it is an essential skill that can be learned and developed as long as your intention is genuine. This last part is key. If you layer the skill upon a disinterest in connecting with colleagues, you will crash and burn, and they will see right through you.

HOW: I feel confident that empathy is more a state of being than doing.

Being empathetic rather than showing empathy. Empathy is driven by the inherent desire and interest in connecting and understanding another’s perspectives thoughtfully and humbly. Dismissing your agenda and leading with curiosity about how the other person is experiencing the situation. Coupled with that, it is the desire to create harmony and connection between what is and what another is experiencing.

Working as a healthcare clinician, you are surrounded by empathetic people and tasked with creating connection and trust with strangers at a moment’s notice. This is a skill powered by inherent interest. It is imperative that you not only desire to be empathetic but you interact in a way that another can feel.

For several years, my job was to care for and manage geriatric fracture patients. These are elderly people who sustained a fractured hip, femur, humerus, etc. and suddenly (typically in the evening) found themselves in the hospital, alone, scared, and with no sense of what was next. My job was not only to manage them medically but to create a bond and trusting relationship so that they felt prepared for surgery, comfortable with the plan, and felt knowledgeable about what were the next steps: all within 30 minutes. Time was of the essence, and honing this skill was imperative.

I would sit along their bed, I would hold their hand, look into their eyes, listen to their story, and ask what was most important for me to know about them I would speak in a tone that was quiet but confident, and I would follow through with any promise I made. While I certainly had a task to perform, it was always smoother and faster if I invested time in learning about my patient’s priorities and greatest fears. From there, I could tailor my focus to meet their needs. I have no question that these precious moments led to a successful clinical career.

WHY: Now that you know how to empathize, the bigger question is why.

Many might ask if honing empathetic skills results in a positive ROI. It is easy to conclude that the leader’s priority is to drive change and innovation, so why must empathy be shown? Isn’t that someone else’s job? Here is the answer. Research has shown that showing empathy and connecting with your colleagues directly affects innovation, engagement, retention, and the feeling of inclusivity.

In the current climate, people leave their job primarily because of poor management and not the job itself. You are leading people, not machines, and people want to feel acknowledged, valued, appreciated, and part of something bigger than themselves. Investing time in understanding who your people are and what drives them will inadvertently lead to loyalty, commitment, and an innate drive toward success.

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