As an entrepreneur, you are responsible for building an effective team and enabling your employees to do their best work. To do that successfully, you need to cultivate empathy, or the ability to imagine yourself in another’s shoes.
“For leaders in particular, empathy means understanding how you come across to others and how you’re perceived by others,” says Robert Sutton, Stanford professor and author of Good Boss, Bad Boss (Business Plus, 2010). “It also means understanding others’ strengths and weaknesses, as well as what motivates them.”
Sutton describes one CEO who convinced two arrogant, uncooperative employees to be rewarded based on individual performance alone. If anyone helped them out, their pay would be docked. By the end of the experiment, they had each lost a substantial amount of money and realized how much they rely on others to do their best work. “She was aware of what motivated them and aware of their blind spots,” Sutton explains.
Awareness about ourselves and others is difficult to gain. “Power makes it worse,” Sutton adds. We naturally pay more attention to people who are above us in the social hierarchy, so those at the top have to be aware of that bias in order to overcome it.
No matter your current level of empathy, your skills can improve with practice. Here’s how to get started:
- Record and review your behavior. To gain insight about others’ reactions to your behavior, observe yourself in a group setting. Try recording a meeting (with the permission of everyone involved) and listening to it afterward. Sutton worked with one executive in this way, noting the number of times he interrupted others and the amount of time he spent talking. “He massively underestimated [the numbers] and he was shocked when I gave him the feedback,” Sutton says.
- Stop and listen. “A good boss realizes that everyone who works for you is different,” Sutton says. Understanding exactly how each person differs is a matter of noticing their actions and reactions to help you infer their thoughts or feelings. At your next meeting, stand in the background or sit quietly and just observe the dynamics among the other team members.
- Trust an empathic colleague. If you struggle with empathy, a trusted colleague can be your eyes and ears in the company. “Ask the person who is really in touch with the people on your team to have backstage conversations with you,” Sutton says. That person can help you understand others and give you honest feedback about your own behavior. Reportedly, Chris Cox does this at Facebook, helping Mark Zuckerberg to gain insight that he might overlook on his own.
- Don’t mistake empathy for niceness. The best bosses employ empathy when and where it’s needed, not as a panacea or a plea for approval. For example, Steve Jobs was known as controlling and harsh, but his former employees say he was incredibly in touch with others’ strengths, weaknesses, and motivators. “Good bosses are empathetic but have the guts to do the dirty work,” Sutton says.