I once worked for a leader who had zero empathy. For instance, he regularly brought his dog to work. I told him I was allergic to some animals and might struggle if I had to enter his office. His solution? “Well, you don’t need to come into my office.” Another time, in one of my rare shining moments of success, he chose to publicly embarrass me instead of encouraging me.
I didn’t like the guy. I don’t believe he cared one whit for me. I didn’t matter to him. It didn’t take long for me to bail on that job.
Whether human beings matter to you, largely, is influenced by your ability to be empathetic – to understand and care about the feelings of another. Empathy is essential in providing for the well-being of humans, and we have far too little of it these days. Empathy is an underdeveloped skill, especially among leaders of organizations and communities. Senior leaders say that their people or employees are “the most important resource we have” but often fail to back up their words with heartfelt care of those same human beings.
Whether you are a leader of a large corporation or of a small family, let’s take a few moments and assess your level of empathy. Where would you fall on this Empathy Scale:
Antagonistic – Apathetic – Clueless – Empathetic
Empathetic = interested in and able to understand the feelings of others.
Clueless = distracted by your own feelings and issues
Apathetic = unconcerned about the state of other human beings
Antagonistic = put out by or angry about the feelings of others
There are six life factors that play into the happiness, contentment and self-worth of the humans under your care and responsibility: 1. Physical health 2. Mental and emotional health. 3. The ability to focus and maintain order 4. Relationships 5. Finances 6. Purpose. The well-being of a human will rise and fall based on the condition of each of those factors.
Here’s the question as it relates to your level of empathy…are you able to sense what another is feeling when one or more of those factors are out of sorts in their life? Based on those six factors, here’s what the human beings in your life may be feeling at any given time.
Chronic pain – Can you sense when someone is hurting…when the hurt has been going on so long that they are worn down by the discomfort?
Lost – Are you able to pick up anomie in another? Anomie is the feeling of rootlessness or being without an anchor in one’s life. Can you tell when someone is drifting?
Anxious – Do you pick up on agitation in others? Can you tell when someone is afraid? Are you good at sensing worry and nervousness?
Sad – Can you tell when someone is down or dejected? Even if their affect isn’t gloomy, can you sense when someone is struggling to make it through the day?
Distracted – Are you able to sense when people are in the flow of work, versus unfocused and disordered? Can you pick up clues as to others’ inability to stay on task?
Lonely – Do you know if the people around you feel isolated? Are you aware when a human being is going it alone through life?
Worried about finances – Can you pick up on clues that a person is struggling with making it financially? Can you read their signs of money anxiety? Do you sense their lack of hope?
Purposeless – Do you know if a person is just going through the motions? Can you sense their lack of meaning? Can you feel it when someone hasn’t found anything to give themselves to unreservedly?
Back to the Empathy Scale. If the feelings I’ve listed above are bothersome to you because they indicate weakness or get in the way of the bottom line or take up too much of your time, then don’t be surprised if you are merely tolerated or even despised as a leader. No one wants to follow an antagonist. If you’re apathetic or unconcerned about these feelings of others, perhaps this would explain why no one ever confides in you or seeks you out for care and direction. They might follow you because of your vision and intelligence but don’t expect to be beloved. If you are clueless to the feelings of others because you are distracted by your own issues, that is understandable, but it is not sustainable if you desire to strongly lead your team or family forward. Get help. Allow your own pain to sensitize you to the pain of others. People will follow those who lead with a limp if they do so with empathy.
Empathetic leaders may not be able to solve all the problems of the human beings in their community or on their team, but they’ll create an atmosphere of care and understanding that says, “Your well-being matters to me.”
Show me an empathetic leader and I’ll show you a team that is loyal, engaged and works very hard…even when their lives are tough.