Management Skills: Three Ways to Build Empathy

management skills

One of the key management skills: Empathy?

Many years ago I worked in an organisation that was very task focused (to say the least). Whenever we tried to introduce some training or new processes that weren’t task related (e.g. interpersonal skills or management skills training, communication strategies) they would be dismissed by the majority of the workforce with the mantra ‘it’s too pink and fluffy

I guess, at first glance, empathy as a management skill could be seen as a little bit ‘pink and fluffy’. After all, isn’t empathy what therapists, psychotherapists and counsellors use? Isn’t it a step too far so say it’s one of the key management skills?

I’d say no – based on this definition of ‘empathy’ within a management skills context:

The ability to understand someone else’s point of view, thoughts, preferences and feelings

My view of empathy is that it’s not just about feelings – about being able to ‘feel your pain’. It’s about having a real understanding and insight into your employee’s mindset. It’s about getting to know your employees in some depth in order to understand what ‘makes them tick’

Management Skills: Empathy – What’s the point?

The simple principle is the better we know an employee the more effectively we can manage them. We know that very few people respond well to the ‘sheep dip’ approach to management. What most employees respond very well to is a manager who takes the time to get to know them as an individual. A manager who can see the world – at least some of the time – from their point of view

So, how do we develop the management skills of empathy? Here are three ideas

Empathy Management Skills #1. Recognise, accept and appreciate differences

It’s difficult to be empathetic unless we recognise, accept and appreciate that people in the workplace are different.  For example, many of us have very different ways of:

  • Organising ourselves and our work – from people with a high preference for structure to those who prefer a high level of flexibility
  • Relating to others – from people who are highly extroverted to those who highly introverted
  • Gathering and using  information – from people who prefer a practical approach to those who prefer the more creative approach
  • Making decisions – from people who like to use an analytical approach to those who prefer to base decisions on personal beliefs 

The reality is we find it much easier to empathise with people who have similar preferences to us. More of a challenge is when there are real differences. Let’s take a quick example

Manager A likes to use a flexible, extroverted, practical and analytical approach to work

Employee B likes a structured, introverted, creative and belief driven approach

Can you see the challenge for Manager A? Can you see the frustrations that might arise if this manager doesn’t make some attempt to understand, recognise and accept their employee’s point of view, thoughts, preferences and feelings – to empathise?

Management skills: Staring to build empathy

Here are two questions the manager could use as a start point to building empathy:

  • What would it be like to have a preference for a structured, introverted, creative and belief driven approach? 
  • What might it be like for this employee to work for a manager like me –with all my (different) preferences?

These questions are simply about developing a curiosity about our employees (because curiosity is fundamental to empathy)

Empathy Management Skills #2. Ask questions

So here’s a pretty obvious idea. If you want to better understand your employees – their point of view, thoughts, preferences and feelings – why not ask them some focused questions. You could use the work preferences I’ve outlined above. For example

How to do you prefer to organise your work? Do you prefer a structured or more flexible approach? Can you think of any ways we could improve this for you – to more closely fit your preferences?

Or, as a simpler approach, you could ask what I call the ‘golden question’

Is there anything I could do; more of, less of or differently to improve your job satisfaction?

Can you see how this question could get you some real insights into your employee’s preferences particularly around how they prefer to be managed? Can you see how effective this question could be in building empathy?

(Read more on how to use this ‘golden question’ HERE)

Empathy Management Skills #3. Listening

One of the key management skills, in any context, is the ability to listen. When seeking to demonstrate empathy it’s vital. However many of us don’t find it easy to listen well – particularly when we’re listening to someone with very different views, thoughts, preferences and feelings!  I’ve written about listening before – for a listening skill technique that really works take a look at this blog

Management Skills: Empathy – A Summary

Developing empathy with our employees is a great way of building relationships. It demonstrates that we are interested and respect the individualism and diversity of people and that’s why it’s such a key management skill


management trainingJoan Henshaw is the author of the ’10 Minute Management’ series of books and videos. Read about these practical, step-by-step guides HERE and videos HERE

3 Responses to Management Skills: Three Ways to Build Empathy

  1. I totally agree about the empathy, it is all about understanding team members as individuals to understand what makes them tick.

    I always challenge managers to find out what their team members think;

    Of them as managers?

    What they think of their careers?

    What they think of their jobs?

    And what they think of the organisation they work for?

    That is on the way to developing true Empathy

  2. joanhenshaw says:

    Thanks for the input David – good points

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