Latest Post
Contact Us
  • Susan Fletcher, Ph.D.

How to Lead with Empathy


Jennifer, and other sales people like her, is a top performing sales clerk. I know why. Top performing sales clerks are 12 times more productive than those at the bottom and 85% more productive than an average performer. About 1/3 of this difference is due to technical skill and cognitive ability while 2/3 is due to emotional competence. (Goleman, 1998). The success of my purchase that day wasn’t because it was Super Target. It could have been Wal-Mart or Neiman’s. It was about Jennifer. Are you like Jennifer? Do you have a “Jennifer” on your team?

Here is the story: It was the first cold day of the season and Jennifer noticed that I was buying jeans for our boys. Jennifer told me she too bought new jeans for her kids recently because their jeans were too short. My kids had the same problem! We talked some more and I felt like Jennifer and I were living the same life. She seemed to get it. When she told me she could save me $15, I felt like she was doing me a favor. It was like she was on my side. She was relying on her emotional competency. When another sales person tells me she can save me 10% on my purchase, they are not talking my language. They are relying on technical or cognitive ability. I can’t “feel” 10% but I can touch and spend $15.

Jennifer showed empathy. Empathy is the awareness of the feelings, needs and concerns of others. Research in the 1970s and 1980s suggested that there was a negative correlation between positions of authority and empathetic abilities. But this attitude is no longer effective for organizations. We work in a team-oriented business culture requiring group cooperation. Empathy enables us to strengthen relationships, pick up early warning signs and recognize opportunities to influence others.

Many may feel that showing empathy weakens your authority. In some cases this is true. A lawyer showing empathy for opposing council will not strengthen his case. At times it is necessary to talk straight and hold someone accountable rather than empathize.

Sympathy can be mistaken for empathy. Sympathy is when you feel compassion for someone – but these are your feelings. Sympathy does not focus on what other’s are feeling. Keeping this in mind, People in the Smart Zone™ lead with empathy. Here are 5 smart tips for how to lead with empathy:

  • Listen well. Listening is an art and has a financial impact. Studies show that physicians who listen to their patients for at least 3 minutes significantly reduce malpractice lawsuits against them. Jennifer listened and she was able to speak my language. When we are anxious to make a sale or get our point across we are less likely to listen well. The next time someone objects to what you are saying resist the urge to defend your point and try responding with these words, “You’re absolutely right, I should consider that.”

  • Don’t be fake. Have integrity. Understanding someone’s point of view doesn’t mean you have to agree with it. In business negotiations when we understand how the other party feels it doesn’t mean we give in. It simply means we can be more skillful in our negotiation and minimize resentment and ill will. Jennifer was genuine.

  • No “one uppers.” Try not to project your feelings onto others. It is human nature to respond to someone else’s problem with an experience we have had. To lead with empathy we must hear out what others are saying without sharing a personal story to “one-up” theirs. Jennifer didn’t go on and on about her children’s situation. She made the customer important.

  • You don’t have to solve it. Just acknowledging someone’s problem or point of view is sometimes all that needs to be done. Whether or not you solve the problem, just showing concern and making a goodwill effort to make things better does some good emotionally. Jennifer felt my pain.

  • Watch out for empathy distress. Sometimes called “compassion fatigue,” empathy distress is where people suffer from someone else’s pain and suffering. Medical and social services workers are especially prone to this as are customer service representatives who deal with unhappy customers all day. Even in an office environment when a co-worker is faced with being laid off we may begin to feel the anxiety and stress for them. To combat empathy distress, stay open to your feelings and don’t blame yourself for negative outcomes of others. Jennifer doesn’t overdo it. She clearly knows the boundary.

Take this quick empathy quiz: Draw the letter “E” on your forehead.

Based on a study by Adam Galinsky, a social psychologist at Northwestern University, if you drew the “E” where you can read it but it is backwards to others (see image) then you are less likely to consider the viewpoints of others. But if you drew the “E” backward to you but legible to others then you are more likely to consider other’s viewpoints.

Oh, yeah. You know what I later found out about Jennifer? She used to work at Disney World. She was Snow White. To be Snow White you have to be in your Smart Zone™ and be able to show Empathy. Jennifer shows Empathy - the awareness of the feelings, needs and concerns of others. Snow White sold me jeans that day and saved me money. She made me feel like a winner. Does Snow White work in your organization?