Are You an Empathetic Leader?

When it comes to tech leadership, empathy is just as important as any hard skill. Here’s how practicing vulnerability can help you be a more empathetic leader.

Written by Sunny Betz
Published on Aug. 11, 2021
Are You an Empathetic Leader?

To Drew Kutcharian, people are the most important part of a company. In the early days of the pandemic, the co-founder and CTO of Los Angeles-based audience insights platform DISQO was challenged on that tenet. Companies like IBM, AT&T and Salesforce were forced lay off workers in order to cut costs. Kutcharian was worried that he’d have to do the same but was determined to avoid layoffs.

“We didn’t know how we’d pull it off,” he said. Kutcharian and his team knew they needed to be transparent, communicate changes as they happened, and make sure their team knew that they were all in it together. It was a strategy that, against the odds, worked — and Kutcharian said his team emerged stronger for it.

The decision to avoid layoffs may not have made financial sense, but Kutcharian explains that above all else, the move was motivated by empathy. 

How to Practice Empathetic Leadership

  • Put trust first.
  • Listen to your team.
  • Respect their boundaries.
  • Put yourself in their shoes.
  • Be genuine.

“2020 was a particularly difficult year for everyone and we all needed to level up our sense of empathy toward each other,” he said. He’d been in workplaces before where empathy had not been extended to him by leadership, and experienced how unsympathetic management damaged team morale and even caused delays on projects. Those experiences taught him the importance of empathy in the workplace, and with the added pressure of the pandemic, he knew that it was more important than ever to offer empathy to his employees. 

To some, the tech industry might not look like the most empathetic environment out there — personal issues get pushed aside when the competition heats up, teams often work arduous hours rolling out new products, and growth-focused culture can sometimes be taken to the extreme. Data and feelings don’t seem to mix. But empathy is just as crucial to the success of a tech company as any hard skill, and in some ways can be the hardest skill to master. In order to lead with empathy, managers have to not only encourage their employees to be vulnerable and honest, but reflect that themselves.

“If a manager wants to build trust, they need to take the lead, to be first to trust,” Kutcharian said. “This means being the first to disclose failures, shortcomings, anxieties — the vulnerabilities that show our humanity. Your vulnerability can itself be a demonstration of empathy.”

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Put Trust First

Trust and empathy are intertwined. In an empathetic workplace, managers put their employees front and center and teammates are able to trust leaders to keep their best interests in mind.

“I find that most people do their best when they feel their leader and coworkers know them and support them as an individual,” said Erika Linford, chief people officer at Silicon Valley-based automotive tech company Zoox. With this kind of support, teams can feel more comfortable sharing a struggle or mistake. 

“Building the teams on the principle of empathy also allows you to make the cooperation within smaller teams be more effective,” said Helen Virt, head of business development at Las Vegas based LGBTQIA+ dating platform Taimi. “[You can] not only manage minor conflicts better but also minimize the risk of one occurring in the first place.”

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Listen to Your Team

Companies are likely to have better collaboration between teams and develop stronger products if they welcome employee feedback and respond to the opinions of their teammates. However, the latest Gallup workplace study shows that only 30 percent of employees feel that their opinions are valued at work. Building an empathetic workplace means paying attention to what your team needs professionally and personally.

“True empathy requires us to give the gift of our full attention to someone else so that we can fully hear the subtleties of their communication,” Kutcharian said. 

"We all come from different perspectives and backgrounds that should be valued, not judged.”

Whether you’re in brainstorming sessions or one-on-one check-ins, make sure that you center your employee’s concerns. Practice active listening instead of taking over their ideas with your own. Ask your employees straightforward questions that push them to share their feedback: How can you better support them as a manager? Are there any challenges they’re dealing with this week? Do they have any suggestions for ways to improve set processes? Another strategy is sending out a survey or poll where your teammates can anonymously share their feedback. 

“We all come from different perspectives and backgrounds that should be valued, not judged,” said Frank Reing, VP of people services at Cambridge, Massachusetts based enterprise software company Pegasystems. “It’s often in this diversity of thought that the best solutions are created. Don’t judge, embrace!”

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Respect Boundaries

It’s normal to be driven and push for stretch goals, but objectives and projects shouldn’t be so unmanageable that they affect the mental health of your employees. It’s not productive in the long run. Your employees are only human, and their work is only one part of their life. If you fail to recognize their personal needs and overburden them with work, they could wind up disengaged or burned out.

“Modeling the behavior we want to see in our teams is an act of empathy for leaders.”

“Leaders need to understand the realities of the world we’re living in today,” said Linford. Employees are often juggling numerous personal needs alongside their work expectations, so it’s on leaders to respect those needs. Providing unlimited PTO and hosting wellness workshops are good, but leading by example is better. Take time off, encourage breaks during the day and avoid logging on after hours.

“Unless their leaders take time off, employees will feel increased anxiety about doing the same,” said Kutcharian. “Modeling the behavior we want to see in our teams is an act of empathy for leaders.”

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Put Yourself in Their Shoes

As you develop and move up as a manager, the easier it can be to forget how you felt at the beginning of your career. No matter what level you are at in your career, the pressure, stress and expectations can feel the same. Bring more empathy into your management style by imagining yourself in their shoes and viewing their challenges as if they were your own. Understanding what motivates your employees will help you better coach them when projects or deadlines get tough.

“In times of friction, it’s often helpful to remember your own journey.”

“In times of friction, it’s often helpful to remember your own journey,” said Linford. If an employee tells you about a goal they want to reach or an area they’re having difficulty with, think back on your own career. Were you once in a similar position? Remembering how you might have handled a similar situation in the past can give you a better idea of how to offer your support now. Everyone is different, but finding those shared experiences helps form stronger bonds and will show your employees that you empathize with them.

“If we make this practice a habit and truly understand why someone may have a certain position, most of the time we each can better appreciate one another and our differences,” said Reing.

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Be Genuine

Empathy isn’t a mysterious power — it’s a soft skill, and like any skill, it can be honed and developed. But in order for someone to cultivate true empathy, it’s important to start from a place of genuine care and concern. Empathy isn’t just a tool to achieve more productivity, and it can’t be built up in a single workshop, or after reading a few books. By making a continuous commitment to strengthening your emotional intelligence, you’ll lay the foundation for truly empathetic leadership. 

“As a leader, your empathy has to be genuine in order to have a positive impact. People can see through a phony quickly,” Kutcharian said. “If your intention is pure, you’re showing empathy because you genuinely care about the people you lead.”

“The kinder you are to yourself, the more self-aware you become and the more likely you are to sense the emotions of others.”

While it might seem counterintuitive, becoming an empathetic leader often means extending empathy towards yourself first. If you’re distracted by your own shortcomings or are too harsh on yourself, it can be harder to tune into your employees’ feelings. Practice mindfulness exercises or keep journals about how you’re struggling or what you’re proud of, so that you can bring more self awareness to your interactions with your employees. 

“The kinder you are to yourself, the more self-aware you become and the more likely you are to sense the emotions of others,” Kutcharian said.

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