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Lao Tzu once remarked, “To lead people, walk behind them.” Not only do leaders need to make sure their team is heading towards the aimed destination, but they also need to oversee that their team will stick together and function well. Easier said than done.

Do you feel the need to give employees everything they want and if you don’t, you will feel bad? Do you hate conflict? Do you work in a toxic working environment? If you do, you are not alone. Many leaders deal with uncomfortable circumstances. But there are ways to work it out. This article addresses two of them – engagement and empathy.

Empathy versus Sympathy

Oftentimes, employees want leaders to feel their pain. They expect leaders to make unrealistic accommodations that may never meet their needs. When we get caught in that roundabout, we know that we are practicing sympathy. We aren’t solving anything because as soon as one issue is dealt with, another arises. When we empathize, we understand another’s circumstances and concerns, but we are not going to take them on as our own. We willingly engage in problem solving and keep moving forward, refusing to stay stuck.

You may be asking, “That’s all well and good. But what are you asking me to do?”

I am suggesting that you consider these six things:

1.      Know what your organization/company expects of you.

I’ve been in situations where I’ve asked my boss, “What’s expected of us?” and all I’ve gotten back is a shrug (which I interpreted as “I don’t have a clue.”) That isn’t good enough. How do you engage me if you cannot explain the organization’s/company’s expectations to me? 

Your role as a leader is to communicate with your boss and ensure you can tell employees the expectations you have to meet and how they can assist you to get there. To do that, the first thing you need is a vision.

2.      Know your vision.

A vision is the outcome employees will achieve if we work together, know our goals, can be vulnerable with each other, accept conflict as normal, and know that what they are doing is valuable. If employees are left to their own devices, they will make up their own goals (and these may conflict), decide what is important, and be on an unintended path that may thwart what you are actually trying to achieve. Use this outcome statement to educate your team.

3.      Educate your team.

We can all read the same paragraph, see the same event or hear the same story, but this does not mean that we come away with the same interpretations or understandings.

As the leader, employees will work as a team if they can share their stories about the expectations, clarify any misunderstandings, articulate their fears, know they are supported, and have the same interpretation of your vision.

4.      Set clear expectations.

Expectations is not another word for generalizations. When expectations are explained to employees, it is essential that they are clear, realistic, easy to tell to whom they apply, and the time frames are explicit. When sentences contain verbs that clarify intentions and avoid any misunderstandings, it is easier for people to come on board and support your efforts.

5.     Ask for and listen to their stories.

It is normal for each of us to make up stories. Our brains automatically do it all the time. If you take the time to hear employees’ stories, they know that it is safe to be vulnerable, to ask for help and seek clarification. It also helps you as the leader to avoid any misinterpretations, make accommodations as required, and ensure the required materials, processes and supports are in place. With all these in place, you are ready to be the role model.

6.      Be the example

Many of us have written reports that are never read, or work endlessly on projects only to be told they are no longer a priority. Employees watch your actions because they really do speak louder than words. If you say something is a priority but your actions demonstrate that it really isn’t, don’t expect others to put their heart and soul into their work.

Leaders are watched; their words and actions are important. Demonstrate your intentions each day. Celebrate successes. Give credit where credit is due.

Do not get distracted by an employee’s wants, but meet their needs. Focus on problem-solving and do not become the soft spot for everyone to land in order to avoid their responsibilities. You are the leader; employees want you to lead. They may test you, but they respect your positive proactive example.

The key: Engage with employees. Empathize with their thoughts and ideas. Do what is best for the team and the organization.

Do you want to

  • reduce stress and achieve harmony in your personal and professional life?
  • be a more effective and efficient leader in your workplace?

If you want to be on top of your game, then you will benefit the most from coaching. I am offering a free 20-minute consultation to help you decide which coaching package is best for you. Click the button below to schedule a call.

Dr. Brenda Kelleher-Flight