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8 Actionable Ways to Lead with Empathy
We’ve said this before – but empathy is, by far, today’s greatest competitive advantage! And in the workplace, it’s easier said than done.
That’s why, a few months back, we hosted Training With Empathy, a virtual wine and learn event. In one jam-packed afternoon, we brought together some of the world’s top thought leaders (including VaynerMedia’s Chief Heart Officer Claude Silver) for a candid discussion about empathy in the workplace.
At the time, Claude had recently wrapped up a major feat of workplace empathy. After 3 years of intentional interactions, she had finally met with every single employee (742 to be exact) at her company!
But by doing so, she also made empathy part of the company fabric at VaynerMedia. And here’s how she says you can do the same at your organization:
1. Be vulnerable first
“As a leader, you have to show up if you expect others to do the same,” Claude explained. Meaning that you can’t ask your team to be vulnerable if you’re closed off.
By default, most people try to compartmentalize their life into work and home. But as most of us telecommute, work and home have become one and the same. So, we can try to hide in the quietest corner to take our calls. Or we can lean into the collective experience.
And one of the easiest ways to do that is to go first! Next time you check in with your team, share how you’re really doing before you ask them to do the same.
By going first, you build trust, and you remove obstacles that typically shut down these kinds of conversations.
2. Create people equity
To really understand what is happening inside your business, you have to talk to as many people as possible. And more importantly, you actually have to listen to what they have to say.
When it comes to empathy, you want to take a bottom-up approach. That means, what your lowest-level employees care about is what your C-suite discusses at their leadership meetings.
And having your leadership team open up (or be vulnerable first) is the first step to opening that line of communication.
Here at Trainual, we like to use a monthly pulse survey to make sure we’re listening. And that everyone has a voice in the conversation.
This is a 10-minute survey to gauge how our team is feeling and highlight their ideas. And we ask questions like:
- What changes would you like to see implemented in the next quarter?
- What is one thing about our organization you never want to see changed?
- Do you see yourself working here in 2 years?
3. Take your time
When Claude set out on her mission to connect with everyone, she didn’t set a hard deadline for getting it done.
Instead, she decided she would host an initial 15-minute conversation with every employee across the US, Europe, and Singapore. And if Claude didn’t feel like she connected with someone, she would set another meeting with them.
She didn’t care that it took 3 years to genuinely connect with the hundreds of employees at VaynerMedia. That’s because, according to Claude, you can’t fast-track human connection. It’s not just another objective to check off the list.
So when you set out to infuse empathy into your company culture, don’t be discouraged when it doesn’t happen overnight!
4. Ask open-ended questions
Some people are just naturally more forthcoming than others. You probably have some employees that openly discuss their feelings and struggles at work. While others will actively avoid having these conversations with leadership – even if they need help.
So rather than asking questions that can easily be answered in one word, pose open-ended questions. This way, your team can feel more comfortable giving detailed answers – even if things aren’t all roses.
To break the ice, Claude likes to kick off 1:1s with “Rose, Bud, Thorn.” This is where you ask your team member:
- What is going really great? (AKA the rose)
- What are you excited about? (AKA the bud)
- What challenges are you facing? (AKA the thorn)
By posing questions in this way (and in this order), you help take the sting out of more difficult topics. And you get insight into what isn’t working.
If you wait until an exit interview to find out what went wrong, then it’ll be too late to fix the problem.
5. Be open to the ugly truth
The thing about asking tough questions is that you have to be prepared for the answers – even the ugly ones.
But it’s not enough to just listen to your team. You need to take action to fix it. Otherwise, what’s the point of having the conversation in the first place?
For example, if several employees complain that the office bathrooms are always dirty, you need to find a solution. And it might be as simple as hiring a cleaner twice a week.
(We like to involve our team in the solutions, so they know we value their feedback and are taking it seriously.)
Otherwise, you’ll lose your team’s trust. And you’ll also cut off honest communication moving forward.
6. Host stay interviews
Most companies host exit interviews. But VaynerMedia realized that by the time the exit interview came around, it was too late.
So they implemented stay interviews to monitor progress and catch problems in real-time. These are candid conversations around questions like:
- What are you most proud of?
- What’s your ideal picture of your job and position within the company?
- What do you really care about?
And remember, sometimes there’s a disconnect between the job someone is actually doing and the job they thought they were doing. The stay interview is the place to proactively realign and reset expectations.
7. Highlight your culture champs
Culture is everyone’s responsibility – not just your Chief Heart Officer or People Ops team. And with VaynerMedia spread out across several campuses, Claude can’t be there for everyone at once.
So, she built a “Culture Squad” to make it easier to check in on everyone. Working like ambassadors, the squad connects with new and disengaged employees.
And because these are peer to peer interactions, your culture squad can help identify where the company might be falling short.
8. Invest in ongoing training
When all is said and done, infusing empathy into your company culture is an ongoing process. And like owning a car, it takes ongoing maintenance and care to keep it running.
That’s why VaynerMedia invests in ongoing training and development for everyone on their team – including front line employees and leadership. By providing everyone on their team the resources and opportunities to level up their skills, it’s up to the individual if they take advantage.