Managing employees takes the skill of balancing both work performance and connecting with the employees. Most managers focus on maximizing performance, but fail to recognize that empathy and respect are necessary ingredients for effective results.
So how do you balance empathy and performance?
People are not movable parts of an organization. They come with their own warranties and guarantees or in many cases, no guarantees. The fluidity of the manager’s ability to manage all the various parts of his team rests on his or her ability to connect with each person they manage.
A manager, who can tap into his empathy muscles when interacting with each employee, can learn to identify with the feelings or thoughts of another person. We will never entirely understand another person, though if we are open to listening to the other’s point of view we build stronger relationships. We learn to sit across from the individual and see the world as they see it….as best as we can.
If you are having a difficult time eliciting empathy for an employee, imagine you are the employee sitting in front of your manager with the same issue. This will soften your personal reactions to the employee in front of you. Empathy is an important skill to learn.
What does this offer you as a manager? First, the person senses and knows that you are present and accepting of their feelings. Second, you can learn what motivates this person, which allows you to set up a personal contract with them. Third, you let go of your own anxiety in interacting with employees.
Where does performance expectations fit into the picture. Listening to an employee doesn’t mean that you are not able to set expectations around performance. When a manager can sit in front of an employee, listen to the employee, and still be clear around performance expectations, he or she will have master the art of managing.
Why is empathy important for elevating performance levels? People are complex and their life’s experiences intertwine with their business performance. Expressing empathy doesn’t mean you give up control, rather you gain more control as you clear space to understand the individual. Nor does empathy mean you are constantly dealing with the same issues, but rather because you are listening, you can set into motion potential solutions focusing on performance.
For example, two distinct scenarios could use a dose of empathy. One you will automatically understand and the other you may react with frustration or anger.
An employee has a sick child and needs to be out of work to care for the child. This employee performs well, consistently shows up for work, and you are open to their issue because of their past performance. When you sit in front of this employee, your empathy rises quickly and you are open to helping the employee. However, if this employee’s personal issue continues for a longer period and influences the overall performance of the department, you may need to set different expectations.
Another employee, who also does their job well, comes in complaining again about another problem in the department. You may find yourself creating a wall between the two of you, tired of listening to the constant stream of complaining. If you bring in empathy and are present with the employee’s frustrations, you will automatically distant yourself from the issue. You will release your negative reaction and create space for the two of you to be more productive in your discussions. A chronic complainer wants attention, and you can set the parameters around how much time you have, and still be available for this individual.
Both of these two situations can influence an employee’s ability to perform at higher levels. Without attachment to the story they bring, you can listen and allow them to share their issues. There are no guarantees that listening and being present to an employee’s issue will increase performance. If an employee’s performance doesn’t meet expectations, you need to go to the next step.
The dance between empathy and performance is a personal journey for each manager. In our hurried world, we feel it is an indulgence to be empathic with others. It’s just the opposite. Really listening and allowing others to express their issues, will allow you to help them move forward.
For very busy managers, who want to stretch their empathy muscles, why not set a time limit for each employee and be present throughout that time. For example, you can tell the person you only have 10 minutes right now and if it will take longer, than they need to schedule a different time. If the person takes the long-winded road to describing their issue, again define a time limit, and be present within that time.
Empathy allows you to be present with the other person, acknowledging their issues, and helping them find solutions to stronger performance. If you are the issue, it may be more difficult to allow empathy in, yet, if you do, you will find that you are no longer the issue with your employees.
Skills for New Managers by Morey Stettner
A-HA! Performance: Building and Managing a Self-Motivated Workforce by Douglas Walker and Stephen Sorkin