Empathy can create effective teams

By | July 18, 2019

Q: How do I get the best out of my team?

A: Effective leadership comes down to specific moments, and often to specific conversations. And more often than not, these conversations go wrong when emotions get in the way.

One of the key pillars of effective conversations is empathy, to be able to walk in the others’ shoes and understand and respond effectively to their experience in a way that makes them feel understood.

This has been shown to foster greater team cohesion, motivation and effectiveness. However, this can be difficult when our own emotions are engaged in the workplace.

Best practice indicates that in this situation we as leaders should respond by allowing the team member to process their emotion, acknowledge it is hard for them to hear that and then reiterate the importance of the feedback to helping them improve.

However, if we as a leader are struggling with anxiety and self doubt ourselves, the emotional response of our team member may elicit heightened anxiety in us, and then lead to a more aggressive, critical response from us.

Or it may lead us to water down the feedback as a way to avoid the negative emotions, which may lead to valid opportunities for improvement being missed.

Conversely, as a team member, our own fear and self-doubts can have the same effect on us and lead to a more aggressive or defensive response.

Either way, these emotions, if not acknowledged, accepted and then managed, can lead to poorer team functioning, missed opportunities for improvement, lower team effectiveness and greater turnover.

Therefore, in organisations, two of the few key elements to creating the greater empathy required for effective team interactions and greater performance are:

  1. Senior Leaders should foster an organisational culture that reinforces open, empathetic conversations where mistakes are seen as learning opportunities to improve
  2. Leaders and employees alike should be given opportunities to learn how to be more mindful and accepting of their own emotions and vulnerabilities (such as anxiety and self doubt). Once more mindful of these there are strategies that can help them manage these emotions, preventing them getting in the way of more effective, empathetic encounters.

Purposeful acts of kindness

Whether we practice ‘random acts of kindness’ like smiling at a stranger, helping someone with directions or offering your bus seat to someone who looks tired; or we practise our kindness with purpose in order to reach a desired outcome, taking focus off our own lives and paying attention to those around us can be beneficial for everyone.

We know everyone has their own struggles to deal with in life, and identifying when others might need our help can assist in improving our relationships. Further, extending kindness to those in need is good for our own mental health too.

The journal Science published research showing that your own happiness increases more when you spend money on others rather than yourself, and a separate study showed adolescents who participate in acts of kindness such as helping, complimenting or comforting others were found to have better developed social skills, self-confidence and happiness.

Stay Kind (www.staykind.org) is a movement encouraging everyone to participate in acts of kindness to help improve the mental health of everyone.

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