Empathetic managers are more likely to inspire others. They are generally well liked and command greater respect, which means their direct reports will be motivated to go the extra mile.

I’m reminded of stories from Bob Sutton’s book, Good Boss, Bad Boss. I hear about such “good bosses” from my coaching clients, but I also hear complaints about “bad bosses.” It doesn’t take much for a boss to get labeled as a jerk. More often than not, it’s because he or she hasn’t listened, hasn’t asked the right questions, and acts authoritatively without empathy.

Some managers worry that they will come across as too soft if they try to act caring. If caring is an act, then perhaps they’re in the wrong job! You can care about people and still get them to complete tasks on time. The goal is to achieve the right balance between empathy and task-orientation for best results.

Because emotions are contagious, and people look to their leaders for cues, the communications of a manager carry a lot of weight. Caring tends to catch on, and others in the organization start exercising more tolerance and empathy. It oils the wheels and allows people to engage more fully in their work because they know it matters.

Empathy is even more critical when managers:

  • Assign unpleasant tasks
  • Provide sensitive feedback or criticism
  • Deal with employee disputes
  • Dislike an employee or customer
  • Deliver bad news (termination or denial of promotion)

So, where does one start when trying to balance the needs of people with the organization’s requirements for task completion?

  1. First, deal with any negativity by seeking to understand and empathize with others.
  2. Next, return the focus to the goals and tasks at hand.

The first step requires true curiosity, the desire to understand another’s point of view, and a genuine interest in what the person is saying and feeling. The best way to accomplish this step is through questions like:

1.      “Can you say more about that?”

2.      “Really? That’s interesting. Can you be more specific?”

3.      “I wasn’t aware of that. Tell me more.”

4.      “I’m curious about that. Let’s discuss this in greater depth.”

5.      “Let me see if I understand you correctly. What I hear you saying is…”

The second phase requires orienting people toward requirements. Strategic focus helps people find a way around negative and uncomfortable feelings. It turns the path toward positive solutions.

What do you think about this? Does your boss ask clarifying questions? Does he or she express empathy? I’d love to hear from you.