How to Be an Empathetic and Understanding Manager

How to be an empathetic and understanding manager

Today we are living in VUCA (term borrowed from the U.S. military), an everyday experience of work that is Volatile, Uncertain, Complex, Ambiguous. In short, everything is getting complicated and work is unpredictable. This is getting more and more frequent. All we have to look forward to are a series of relentless ‘changes’, ones that upset our balance and ability to control and plan as a manager.

It is true that the task of managing people is harder than ever before. The average employee can expect to change job several times in the next 3 years. A recent UK study showed that UK worker’s job satisfaction is at an all time low, people are disengaged and not bringing their best selves to work. With the increasing volume of ‘stuff’ hitting us daily, our technically connected world produces more and more struggle and isolation in human relationships.

Yet one tool that all managers have access to is their ability to connect with people. Two ways to do this include Empathy and Understanding.

First, Empathy involves “Tuning into other people’s feelings so that you can take them on board when making decisions”.

What does being Empathetic look like and sound like?

When people come to work, people have three important needs: to feel that they belong, to feel that they are understood and to feel that they have some control.

Effective managers understand these needs and build a working environment that enables people to feel good. When we don’t feel good about what we are doing, people start to ‘act up’ and not work to their best.

“a high degree of empathy in a relationship is the most potent factor in bringing about change” (Carl Jung,p.59)

Here are some Top Tips for Managers to demonstrate empathy:

Do more of the following:

1. Ask your team members how they feel – on a scale of 0 to 10 and make eye contact when doing so. Use your own awareness to recognise others’ feelings. Make an effort to be more sensitive and understanding of others. You could also ask ‘What would help you feel better?’.

2. Avoid saying ‘You need to; you have to; why didn’t you; you should; you shouldn’t; you should have; and you shouldn’t have’.

3. Improve your listening ability by giving your team members the opportunity to express themselves completely, without interrupting, judging or trying to solve their problems. Listen to the whole person and don’t judge until you have all the information. Put your mobile phone away and tune into the person you are with. When you are in a conversation with someone, keep a constant check on what you are thinking and what you are feeling. Pay attention to how much you are focusing on yourself and how much you are tuning in to them.

4. Improve your ability to read body language. Tune in more to non-verbal communication. Tone of voice changes occur when a person is feeling upset so listen out for these. Use your posture to signal an open approach to others.

5. Remember that the muscles of human expression are in the face. Learn how to read emotions in people’s faces.

6. Learn to appreciate differences in people, validate and empathise with them without getting ‘infected’; ie feeling responsible for the cause of a problem or solution and getting drained.

7. Test the correspondence between what you experience and what objectively exists. Notice when you are speaking facts and when you are expressing feelings and notice how different the reaction is in the other person.

8. Try to label the feelings of the person you are talking to, by putting an emotion label to the feeling you are hearing. Practise reflecting others’ thoughts and feelings.  Paraphrase their thoughts or ideas and reflect back their feeling messages, “So what I am hearing is that you feel angry…”.

9. Recognise how you feel when someone shows concern for you and how it makes you feel when you show concern for someone else.

Secondly, Understanding involves “tuning into what colleagues need in order for them to be effective at work”.

When understanding is strong in a team, it builds trust and safety. Research shows that understanding is a strong predictor of team performance. Understanding contributes to a team being resilient under pressures.

You do not need to like your team members to be able to understand them. Understanding is a very important ingredient if you want your team members to ‘go the extra mile’.

“Understanding changes perceptions. The greater the understanding, the truer the perception” (Anon,p.73)

What does being Understanding look like and sound like?

Understanding involves knowing your people and their work styles, strengths and weaknesses, skills and interests, concerns and needs, personal circumstances and the effect on their work-e.g. how they work, what they like, what they don’t like, their home context and how this influences how they work. Getting to know your colleagues does not need to happen outside the work context, you can take time to find out.

Top Understanding Tips for Managers:

1. Start by disclosing information about yourself on the topics mentioned above and ask your colleagues to do the same. It Is helpful for the manager to go there first.

2. Find out facts, values and aspirations of all team members.

3. Share with others what annoys you at work, and ask others to share what annoys them.

4. Use all of this information to build a foundation of understanding.

Author Geetu Bharwaney

By: Geetu Bharwaney, Author of ‘Emotional Resilience: know what it takes to be agile, adaptable and perform at your best

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