Building Empathy through a Leader’s Perspective

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The culture of a team is almost always dependent on what sort of leadership the team enjoys. Good leadership will engender a good culture within the team, which in turn is rewarded with high levels of psychological safety, and all the benefits that are associated with this. Of course the opposite is true too; poor leadership creates instability, unhappiness and discontent, and of course all the fallout that is associated with this!

One of the key factors that sits at the heart of good leadership is the ability to build empathy within the team. Leaders who understand their teams know how to do this by working with their team members, empowering them and facilitating the building of professional and positive relationships, not only between the leader and the team members, but between the members themselves.

Leadership is often challenged from all angles. This is the nature of the game, and indeed this is part of the reason why leadership is such a complex and fulfilling art! Unlike management, which is all about following the rulebook or company manual, leadership needs to take a broader perspective on the direction that any organisation is taking, and constantly go through a cycle of evaluating, observing and adapting to times as they morph and change. Leadership is all about driving towards a vision; and to get there requires a deep understanding of the human condition within the organisation. Good leaders understand how their team thinks, feels, grows and moves at the deepest of levels, where empathy and understanding are the drivers and where the ‘bottom line’ is no more than a cursory measure.

I recently used the analogy of a beach ball to try and explain what this is like in practice. If you imagine a beach ball with all its different coloured stripes, and you imagine that one employee is positioned on the red stripe and another is positioned on the blue stripe. From where each of them stands the world will seem either red or blue. Their perspectives on life are therefore, quite different and will certainly impact on their choices. But blue choices may not always be compatible with red choices so this could be a point of conflict!

Now imagine that the leader of an organisation holds the beach ball in their hands. They can see both the red and the blue stripes (as well as all the other colours). To them the world is multi coloured and they have a bird’s eye view of all perspectives. If they are perceptive, they can see how both red and blue perspectives may be ‘right’ but just from different points of view. Not only can they appreciate these differences but a skilled leader can also see how to find common ground where red can appreciate blue and vice versa.

The skill of the leader, therefore, is to navigate the understanding between the different colours so that, even if the red employee cannot see the ‘blue world’ they can still appreciate that it exists and empathise with what the world may look like as a different colour. To take the analogy further still, the skilled leader can develop each ‘colour’ so that the people involved can realise that if they share their skills they can create ‘purple’ – a way of enhancing their perspectives beyond that which would be possible if they merely maintained their perspectives.

Good leaders can not only identify differences between their staff and make sure that they are able to empathise with each other, but they can also help their staff to collaborate and share ideas through developing empathy between people. A multi talented staff  is only the best they can be if they are given the opportunities to share their talents and work together to create a team which is greater than the sum of its parts.

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