Leadership Advice

Empathy is essential for today’s leaders: 5 tips for those who lack it

Advice from Jill Geisler, Bill Plante Chair in Leadership & Media Integrity, Loyola University Chicago and Freedom Forum Fellow in Women’s Leadership

Imagine you’re a leader who truly wants to help people navigate today’s many newsroom challenges. At every turn, you see articles that stress the importance of empathy. 

And you know empathy has never been your strong suit. You’ve been great at strategy, craft, and getting results. But you’ve been told your so-called “soft skills” could be stronger.

Today, we know that the term “soft skills” undervalues the very powerful competencies of leaders that guide their human interactions — especially empathy. Those skills aren’t squishy or “leadership light” — they’re essential.

If you lack that skillset, I’m not here to judge. I’m here to help, especially with empathy.

I’ve administered enough personality assessments in management seminars to know the prevalence of “thinkers” (people who are tough but fair and think first about team success) over “feelers” (people who are attuned to individuals’ feelings and think first about their well-being.)

I also know that both types have strengths and weaknesses. “Feelers” can be too nice to have a tough conversation and let problems fester. “Thinkers” can be tactless and so hard-driving they create bad morale or burnout.

If you’re one of those “thinkers” — you can keep the best parts of it — the drive for quality and success — but work on filling the gaps in your interpersonal relationship-building.

You can work on your empathy. Because here’s the payoff: It will help you and everyone succeed.

Here are five tips to build your capacity for empathy:

  1. Think of empathy as “perspective taking.” Journalists do it all the time in reporting. They try their best to get into the heads of people they’re covering. What’s their viewpoint? What drives them? What matters to them? Apply that journalistic muscle to your own team members. 
  2. When making decisions, pause and do a “stakeholder check.” Don’t just think about the fastest way to get something done. Think about WHO will be affected by your decision. Who will it hurt, help, anger, engage, confuse? How will you engage with them before, during, or after your decision?
  3. In conflict, take a “third story” approach. When you — or others — are in conflict, there’s a tendency to think in terms of “my story” and “your story” — which inevitably differ. Imagine that you are a neutral third party listening to both of those stories. Inevitably, you’d tell a third version, based on all of your observations. It would likely provide a more wholistic view, since you aren’t bringing personal bias and assumptions to it. Step back whenever possible and ask what the “third story” of a conflict might be. 
  4. Make it safe for people to teach you – and reach you. Smart leaders hire people who complement their skills and help fill their gaps. You have empathetic colleagues who would love to know they can tug at your sleeve if you’re missing something — or someone. Tell them you welcome their insights and advice. Then demonstrate to them  that it pays off in your short-term responses and your long-term growth.
  5. Assign yourself some learning. Listen to “How Power Erodes Empathy and the Steps We Can Take to Build It.” from WBUR. Read “How to Be More Empathetic” from the New York Times. Then binge-watch both seasons of “Ted Lasso” for good measure. 

As you build your capacity for empathy, you’ll face one more reality: It hurts. When you see the world through the eyes of others, you’re more open to feeling their pain, too. You become the Tin Man in the “Wizard of Oz,” who said, “Now I know I’ve got a heart, because it’s breaking.

That means you need to take good care of yourself. Build your resilience by learning to de-stress. Talk, reflect, pray, exercise, laugh, cry, write, rest. Being both strong and empathetic is hard work. You, your team and your journalism will be better for it.


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