Work kinder, part 4: how leaders can help grow an empathetic culture

How managers can help grow empathetic cultures

“Leadership is always a commitment to human beings.” - Simon Sinek

Everyone can help grow an empathetic culture, and if you’re a manager, your potential for impact in this area may be greater than you imagine. In fact, we’d argue that leadership at all levels raises and lowers the empathy temperature of their organizations even without conscious effort. But with an intentional approach, cultivating workplace empathy is not only doable for any leader, it’s also relatively simple.

Cultures aren’t startups; their health hinges not on scaling quickly and making a huge splash, but on the everyday environment in which they’re planted. Shape the environment, and you guide the culture.

5 empathy-growing practices for leaders:

You don’t need talk-show-style emotional exposure or a single round of Kumbaya to sow and nurture the seeds of empathy. Far more useful are incremental adjustments to existing management practices.

1. Know your goal.

Misunderstandings of empathy abound, and they inevitably lead to either outright rejection of this “soft” skill or a distorted, ultimately harmful version of it. Kim Scott, author of Radical Candor, even has a name for that distortion: ruinous empathy. That’s right, ruinous. She’s not wrong. If your goal is perpetual harmony, it’s not empathy you’re after; it’s agreeableness. If, however, you’re interested in nurturing teams that:

  • Communicate openly, giving and receiving candid feedback

  • Don’t hide mistakes or shift blame, but own and learn from errors

  • Respond to (and even anticipate) the needs of customers

... then by all means read on.

2. Hire empathy.

When recruiting, mention that you’re actively working to grow an empathetic corporate culture. Take note of how that lands in interviews and consider it when making hiring decisions. Candidates needn’t demonstrate a nuanced understanding of empathy in order to help you foster it—indeed, folks coming from decidedly unempathetic working environments may be the most appreciative of your efforts in this area—but those that dismiss (or worse, deride) it may not be your first choice if other well-qualified applicants are more open to the idea.

Another opportunity at the hiring stage—and we readily admit we’re on a learning curve with this one here at Open Door Teams—is to seek out diverse pools of applicants and resist workplace homogeneity. Homogeneous teams tend to have homogeneous perspectives. Which, to be clear, doesn’t mean they lack empathetic muscle altogether; it just means they have fewer opportunities for heavy lifting and may therefore lack the brawn that more diverse teams who prioritize empathy get frequent chances to build.

Be proactive: Include underrepresented people in your selection panel and get creative about where you look for talent. Keep in mind that the idea here is to challenge unconscious bias, not to create a new brand of it.

3. Be mortal.

Nothing kills empathetic cultures like superhuman management. When people see that their leaders live unsustainable, work-worshiping lives (and they will if you do), they logically assume the same imbalance is required of them, especially if they aspire to leadership. Likewise with mistakes and challenges—if leaders demand rigorous perfection of themselves while advocating patience and transparency for everyone else, the empathy that grows will be tenuous and hard to trust.

For a heartier culture, do something radical: humbly accept your own mortality.

Lose the savior complex. Ditch perfection and the always-working mindset. Take your vacations. Disconnect. Go to the recital, the game, the play, the reunion. Remain ready to delegate responsibility and insist on the same from your middle management. By letting your team see that you’re human, that you allow yourself a life outside of work, and that yes, you err at times like everyone else, you teach them that it’s okay to let themselves, each other, and your customers be human too.

4. Talk (and keep talking).

Maintain continual dialog on varied topics with individuals from all levels of the organization. This requires sustained effort but is essential to actually getting responses to your please send me any comments you might have requests. Ever notice that you rarely get actionable responses from those requests?

It takes time to establish that:

  • You’re listening,

  • Providing comment is risk-free, and

  • Though disagreements will occur during these discussions, you'll hear all perspectives out and make a call either way. That is, you won't saddle your team with the burden of making management decisions just because they commented.

5. Mix and mingle.

Fear of friction and inefficiency can drive us to focus only on what we have in common, to keep like efforting with like. But it’s in our differences, not our sameness, that the chance to build empathetic muscle—and the innovative power it generates—resides.

"When departments work together, not only do they understand each other's mission better but the solutions are better too. Interdisciplinary teams avoid the ‘once you have a hammer everything looks like a nail’ sort of solution."

- Lauren C., CEO

How often do your departments and teams get organic opportunities to collaborate? This time needs to be managed, but it’s not a waste for your Marketing team members to see what happens in Software Development and vice versa, for example. Because while it may already be true that your devs and marketers operate empathetically within their own teams, it may also be true that that ends at the department door.

Sow it to grow it.

Visit any Marine mess hall, writes Lieutenant General George J. Flynn in the foreword to Simon Sinek’s Leaders Eat Last, and you’ll find that “... the most junior are served first and the most senior are served last.” To cultivate a culture of empathy, we must, first and foremost, empathize. We must demonstrate daily our willingness to see and prioritize the needs of those who are depending on us to guide them. 

Practice empathy. Become a student of it. Here’s a questionnaire you can use to assess your level of empathy and get a better picture of where to focus your efforts. Your empathy will create a model your team will use between themselves and toward your customers. It all starts at the top.

Or, rather, at the back of the chow line.


Photo by Headway