When I was 7 or 8 years old, my best friend Donna’s beloved Grandmother unexpectedly past away.  I remember arriving at school and finding my friend in tears.  I had no idea what to do.  At that point in my life, I had not yet felt the loss of a close family member or friend.  As I awkwardly stood there, our friend Brenda arrived on the scene.  Within seconds, Brenda had enveloped both of us in a huge hug.  Not saying anything – we listened as Donna expressed grief, sadness and confusion over her loss.   

That memory burns bright in my memory even today.  It was the first time I encountered someone in need of empathy.  And me not knowing what to do.   Fast forward a few (a bunch) of years, and the topic of “empathy” is getting a lot of attention in leadership circles.  Emotional researchers define “empathy” as the ability to sense another’s emotions, coupled with the ability to imagine what that person may be thinking or feeling.  While many leaders understand the dictionary definition of “empathy, it can be a stretch for them to imagine how they might personally incorporate more empathy into their leadership.  

I recently had the opportunity to hear Jim Keane, President and CEO of Steelcase, Inc. speak about empathetic leadership. Steelcase is the world’s largest manufacturer of office furniture.  2020 certainly has brought its fair share of challenges to a company devoted to “life at the office” while so many people are exclusively working from home.  In this situation – now more than ever – Jim feels that the need for listening and empathy is amplified.  He challenges his leadership team to balance the expectation that senior leaders show up at meetings to tell, speak, and decide with the alternative to show up and listen.  Sometimes that’s easier said than done.  

Jim tells a terrific story of his first day as CEO at Steelcase.  By coincidence, his first day was also an all-day offsite planned for the top leaders in the company.  The organizers wanted Jim to layout his vision and strategy for the group in this meeting.  But that didn’t feel “right” to Jim.  As an alternative, Jim worked with the organizers to open the meeting with a dramatic exercise in empathy.  At the start of the day, the 150 attendees were divided into pairs and sent out to tables setup throughout the building.  Each table had 2 to 5 employees seated at it, carefully selected to be outside the reporting chain of either leader. 

The leaders were instructed to only ask 3 questions  

  • What is getting better? 
  • What is getting worse? 
  • How do you feel?

No problem solving.  No other questions.  The leaders were there only to listen.  Afterwards, each leadership pair debriefed what they heard with another pair of leaders. 

Jim recalls feeling like the decision to run this experiment was a risky move.  This offsite was his first exposure to the leadership group, and investing 90 minutes in this activity was an expensive move.  The end result?    

The leaders had heard things that they didn’t like.  They could see the need for changes.  More importantly, they could feel the need for change from the perspective of the employees.  Later when Jim stood up to talk about what needed to happen, the leaders were already pushing for it.    

As Jim sees it, things are either getting better or they are getting worse.  Things don’t just stay the same.  The most important part, though, is understanding how people feel. Empathetic leadership is not about pleasing everyone. It’s about being fully informed.  When you spend the time listening, feeling and engaging with people, you can find solutions that incorporate not just the data, but also the points of view of many people.   The end result is not only a better decision, but more acceptance of it across the organization.  

Here are some tips for putting the 3 questions for empathetic leadership into action: 

  • Plan conversations to ensure psychological safety.   Notice that at Steelcase, leaders were paired with employees outside their organization.  Be interested in what is being said, not in who said it. 
  • Start conversations from a place of humility.  It’s not possible to know what needs to be said beforehand.   You don’t need to be ready with answers or decisions. Just listen. 
  • Stick to the 3 questions. What’s getting better; what’s getting worse; how do you feel about it. If you need another question – ask “Tell me more about how you feel.” 
  • Listen.  While it can be tempting to take notes, it can divert attention away from the person.  Focus on what you hear.  

With enough conversation – patterns will emerge.  As a leader the question then is what will you do next?