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Is Empathy Part of Your Leadership Style?

One of the best things I ever did during my career was hire a business coach while working at Prologis. The coach we enlisted offered 360-degree assessments, which meant the evaluations would tell me how I viewed my personal strengths and weaknesses in relation to how others viewed mine. I was so enthusiastic about the idea of feedback that I made sure everyone on our senior management team participated as well.

The idea of getting feedback is a very exciting and uplifting prospect, but the reality of processing it is a much heavier and introspective task. What I didn’t anticipate was that the feedback I would receive actually would be something I would process for many years to come.

Some of the lessons have been easier to digest than others. For example, I discovered that I needed to slow down and spend more time with people—that in the eyes of my direct reports I appeared too busy for them to feel comfortable enough to take up my time. In other words, I needed to place more emphasis on empathy and recognize that each of my team members needed more individual attention rather than group meetings.

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Today’s business climate has caused all of us to take empathic leadership more seriously—and for good reason. Bestselling author and former sports columnist Sam Walker says, “A leader who can empathize with employees’ personal situations will emerge from this stronger and better than before. And it will become clearer that a one-size-fits-all approach isn’t a good leadership strategy.”

Walker points to former Chicago Bulls coach Phil Jackson and his ability to adapt to his players. For instance, Jackson treated free-spirited Dennis Rodman differently than disciplined Michael Jordan. Jackson’s empathic coaching style gave star rebounder Rodman room to express himself because he recognized Rodman and other players as individuals. Other coaches might have tried to control Rodman off the court, but Jackson knew a little empathy would go a long way.

Author of EQ Applied Josh Bariso explains why individuals in the workplace or team members like Rodman reciprocate empathy by working harder for the organization: They feel understood. “The result is a trusting relationship where both parties are motivated to give the other person the benefit of the doubt and forgive minor failings,” says Bariso.

It’s ironic that I sought to better understand my own strengths and weaknesses during that evaluation process, and in the end, I learned that people wanted that sense of being understood from me. My hope is that I’ve made a lot of headway with that feedback over the years. Maybe it’s time for another 360-degree evaluation.


  1. Greg Scott

    This is great advice. With the speed of how companies move today, it is hard to take the time to get to REALLY know your co-workers. We must take time though. It is imperative!

    Reply to Greg Scott

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