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Leadership and Empathy in the Workplace

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My grandma passed away last Sunday, and sadly, I could not go to her funeral. My daughter has some selective exams coming up, and I have quite a few important deadlines to meet at work, so I decided it probably would not work for us to take time off to fly to India for the funeral. Although I thought it was a good decision, I was still upset. 

The following Monday morning, I went to work as usual but wasn't the usual cheerful self that I usually am. One of my colleagues, who was very much aware of the work deadlines, worked the weekend to help me prepare some reports. She had emailed those over to me on Saturday evening. When I received her email, I felt grateful for what she had done and the fact that she went out of her way and worked the weekend to help me. I had decided that I'd take a box of chocolates to thank her on Monday morning. But after receiving the terrible news about my beloved grandma on Sunday, I completely forgot to do any of that. So when I walked in on Monday, I walked in with a long face. 

My colleague wasn't expecting that box of chocolates, but at least a smile and perhaps a 'thank you'. When I did none of that, she felt humiliated. She waited a while and then walked over to my desk and said, "I worked all night Friday and Saturday to prepare that report for you. I don't expect anything, but the least you can do is not ignore me. You have already been in the office an hour, let alone thanking me; you've not even acknowledged me with a hello. I regret helping you. I should have never done anything for the likes of you." And then she sarcastically screamed, "you're welcome", as she walked away from my desk. 

I felt hurt, but then I paused and saw things from her perspective. She had a right to be mad because she had worked hard and certainly did not deserve to be ignored. Plus, she didn't know what had happened in my life over the weekend. She had not seen the whole picture. So I calmed myself down and went over to apologise. Although she had spoken to me in front of the entire office, I chose not to talk to her in public. Instead, I invited her to join me in the meeting room, and I began with an apology.

leadership

First, I apologised for not instantly acknowledging her work, and then I thanked her and told her how much I appreciated her doing that for me. I told her I was planning on buying her a box of chocolates, but then I got distracted by some terrible news on Sunday. I clarified that it was not an excuse and that I owed her an apology and that box of chocolates (I added with a faint smile). My colleague felt terrible and apologised non-stop. I explained that I was okay and understood that she didn't know. 

Similar instances have happened in my personal life too. For example, a good friend messaged me that his father was in the hospital, and since he did not hear from me immediately, he assumed I didn't care and sent a ton of abusive messages calling me selfish, among all other things. The fact was that I was on a plane, and my phone was on flight mode for almost six hours, so I never got his texts. When I received them, I received all seven of them at the same time. When I clarified, he also apologised.

We often tend to assume the worst and jump to conclusions, and when we react, we make it all about us. For example, when a colleague or friend doesn't greet us, we think they are mad at us. When someone asks us questions after a presentation, we assume they are trying to criticise or show us down. When a friend doesn't share some important news with us, we think they no longer value our friendship. And while all of these scenarios are perfectly plausible, there is also a chance that the reason is something else that we don't know. So the least we can do is give them the benefit of the doubt and ask.

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An essential quality of a good leader is empathy.

So when a good leader, regardless of their rank or position in an organisation or their relationship with their subordinate, finds themselves in situations where they might be at the receiving end of so-called rude behaviour, they extend empathy. 

A while ago, my daughter was quite unwell, and my husband took time off work to look after her as I needed to be in the office. Although I was physically at work, my heart was at home, so I was not quite myself at work. Like I failed to acknowledge my colleague after my grandma passed away, I forgot to greet my boss and deliver on my promises. But unlike my colleague, my boss, who was also a good leader, walked up to my desk and asked if he could speak to me privately. He invited me to the meeting room and asked, "Is there anything bothering you because, to me, you seem different today? Or if there's anything I have said or done that has upset you, please let me know because I never meant to. You're a valued member of my team, and I want to ensure that you're okay."

True leaders extend empathy instead of being self-centric. Unlike my colleague or even my friend, my mentor didn't make it all about him. My colleague had the right to feel upset when I failed to acknowledge her effort, and my friend had a right to be mad when he thought I didn't care. But what they lacked was the empathy of a good leader. Instead, they made it all about themselves and lashed out at me instead of first checking in on me to see why I did what I did.

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On the other hand, my mentor dealt with the situation with empathy. When he talked to me, I realised I had failed to deliver on my promises; so he didn't avoid confrontation by letting it slip. He spoke to me in a way that didn't make me feel bad. On the contrary, he extended empathy and made me feel valued and supported. An essential quality of a good leader is to develop empathy and give people a chance to explain themselves instead of lashing out or holding grudges. 

In the words of Sir Richard Branson, "there is no magic formula for great company culture. The key is just to treat your staff how you would like to be treated."


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  • I really appreciated you highlighting the self-centric attitudes that we can so easily achieve and the story of true leadership as demonstrated by your boss… so many good lessons to learn. Thank you for sharing Nikita

  • Thanks for being so candid Nikita and I empathize with you that you couldn’t fo to your grandmothers funeral. I couldn’t say goodbye to my mother together with my family, so I know how it feels. Love and Light, Mir.

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