Servant Leadership: Empathy

Each month The Ritz-Carlton Leadership Center (RCLC) asks leadership experts questions about servant leadership. Our topic for June is how servant leaders use empathy with employees. This month’s servant-leader experts are:

  • Abigail Marsh, Associate Professor of Psychology, Georgetown University
  • Mark Crowley, Workplace thought leader and author of Lead from the Heart

RCLC: What are some tactics you’ve used to understand employees who may be tougher to access?

Mark Crowley: Teams thrive on diversity — not uniformity — and leaders who understand this will intentionally hire people with varied backgrounds and personalities. Hiring an introverted chef or massage therapist, for example, might prove to be a very wise move!

The best advice I can give to any manager is that not everyone operates from the same map of the world as you do. Just because some employees quickly warm up to you shouldn’t lead you to think everyone will.

So if you find yourself struggling to connect with an employee, be patient with them — and yourself. Find ways to work closely with “tougher to access” employees; just spending one-on-one time with them can help build the trust that will help many of them to come out of their shell. I’ve also found that giving people space, and allowing them to come to you when they’re ready, leads to the most sustainable kind of trust you can ever imagine achieving.

RCLC: When leaders are empathetic, how can they manage an employee who might try to take advantage of a caring boss?

Abigail Marsh: Being caring doesn’t have to mean being an easy target. One of the oldest and most durable findings in psychology is that cooperative interpersonal relationships flourish when people adhere to what is called “the norm of reciprocity.” The norm requires that interpersonal encounters start from the assumption that both players are trustworthy actors who will help each other out when needed. But if either person violates the other’s trust, it is appropriate for there to be a consequence, such as the withdrawal of future trust or assistance. For example, an empathetic boss might offer the employee who has just experienced a distressing life event some extra time off. To foster a strong relationship, the employee might later reciprocate by contributing extra and unasked-for help on a project. Employees who ask for repeated favors without reciprocating should not be surprised to find their bosses less willing to extend assistance to them over time.

RCLC: What advice would you give to leaders who aren’t naturally empathetic or would like to express more empathy?

Abigail Marsh: The crucial components of empathy are simple awareness of and caring about others’ emotional and mental states. Often when people are upset or in distress, simply acknowledging those feelings can make a difference. Something as simple as “I can see you are really upset,” or, “You seem worried — anything I can do to help?” can forge a connection because it demonstrates that the speaker understands and cares about how the listener is feeling. This is all that is meant by empathy. Recognizing others’ emotional states comes naturally to most people, as long as they take the time to pay attention to others’ emotional language and nonverbal cues. But even people who are less naturally in tune with others’ emotions can learn to pay deliberate attention to signs of distress like a furrowed brow, compressed lips, or a voice that sounds tenser and higher-pitched than usual.

Mark Crowley: Traditional leadership theory teaches us that expressions of empathy or compassion toward employees are characteristic of weak leaders — people who do not drive high performance.

So if we grew up working for bosses who rarely displayed thoughtfulness or intentional care in their interactions with workers, it’s not unreasonable that we would model that same behavior in how we manage our own teams.

But mounds of scientific research is now emerging that proves qualities like kindness, concern and empathy are actually leadership strengths — not weaknesses. The more human we are with people, in other words, the greater their engagement and commitment.

I mention this because I think what most of us really need is permission to display empathy with the people we manage — and to authentically demonstrate that we care about them personally and what’s going on in their lives. The evidence is clear that we are all wired as human beings to be empathetic, and only hold back because we think it’s inappropriate to display it in the workplace.

So if you need an incentive to show your people some empathy, know this: when you withhold it, people will see you as being a self-interested leader — and you’ll drive many people away.

RCLC: The Employee Promise at The Ritz-Carlton states that employees are our “most important resource.” How can leaders make employees feel genuinely cared for each day?

Abigail Marsh: People tend to feel cared for when they are cared for. Genuine caring is hard to fake. Genuinely caring people tend to prioritize the welfare of others, even others who are not personally close to them. They tend to assume that most people are doing their best and try to adopt an understanding approach even toward undesirable behavior. They pay attention when others are suffering or in distress and try to help or console them with words or gestures. Classic, caring gestures like a hand on the shoulder or an embrace are simple, ancient and powerful — even our chimpanzee cousins use them to console other members of their group. They work just as well with humans.

Mark Crowley: There’s a huge risk in saying (out loud) that employees are The Ritz- Carlton’s “most important resources” simply because there are so many ways the organization and its leaders can break that promise. And should employees ever come to believe that this pledge is in any way hollow or insincere, their trust in management will likely become irrecoverable.

So each day, managers have the opportunity — and the obligation — to intentionally make deposits into the emotional bank accounts (as Stephen Covey called them) of every person on their team. And some of the smallest gestures can have the biggest impact: Complimenting them for how they handled a difficult guest, thanking them for their initiative and cooperation with other employees, letting them leave work early on a day you know will greatly help them — giving them an unexpected and challenging assignment.

My advice: As best as you can, determine what your employees need in any given moment (e.g., encouragement, trust, patience or guidance) and give it to them. If you do, they’ll know you care.