The Great Rewards From Being An Empathetic Leader

Atticus Finch and Scout from To Kill A Mockingbird“If you can learn a simple trick, Scout, you’ll get along a lot better with all kinds of folks.  You never really understand a person until you consider things from his point of view, until you climb inside of his skin and walk around in it.”
       Atticus Finch, To Kill a Mockingbird

Empathy, the capacity to recognize feelings being experienced by another person, is a critically important and truly essential leadership skill, even though I can’t recall a time when a manager of mine – or a leadership development class facilitator – ever stressed its importance.

I’m certain that the idea of being empathetic in the workplace is entirely misconstrued by many managers, and is perceived to be both weak and soft as a leadership practice.

The truth, however, is that leaders who put empathy to proper use are far more effective in building and sustaining trust with their employees and, most especially, in implementing the toughest of business decisions.

Here’s an example of how a display of empathy helped me not only to successfully introduce a very unpopular new process, but to win over the support of the people most affected by it.

Soon after I was promoted to lead sales management for Washington Mutual’s investment brokerage business, I was directed to make a huge change to the firm’s compensation plan.

Up until I’d arrived, and for many years before, the bank had a very simple way of paying its investments sales representatives – a scheme everyone really liked:

Through the course of every month, the Reps sold investment products (e.g. mutual funds, stocks and bonds) and were paid a percentage of the revenue their sales generated.  That percentage was tiered so the most productive Reps earned the highest monthly “pay out.”

Almost at the same time my promotion was announced, our bank hired a new President of Retail Banking, Mr, Higgins.  Higgins was a transplant from Scotland where they do many things differently than in the U.S.  This point is important to the story because he had effectively just become my new boss.

After Mr. Higgins had taken time to review the current compensation plan, he insisted that the bank wasn’t asking nearly enough of the Reps for all the income they were earning.  He pointed out that they had no monthly sales goals, weren’t accountable for customer service scores, or even for referrals back to the bank branches. He insisted I change all of this for next year’s plan.

Honestly, Higgins’ assessment was entirely accurate and I had no trouble accepting the logic of his direction.   But he also held the belief that the changes were long overdue and consistent with what was done back home.  He, therefore, seemed quite comfortable having me introduce the new plan with a “take it or leave it” tone of communication.

Believing such an approach would be unnecessarily disruptive to the Reps, the bank and to me just as I was joining the firm, however, I chose a different course of action.

Once I had a solid grasp of what the compensation plan changes were likely to be, I began having conversations with Reps and managers all over the company.  To be entirely honest, few of these chats were enjoyable for me.  As the messenger of unwanted change, I was routinely shot and left for dead.  But after each discussion, I had a better understanding of how the Reps would be affected and how I might be able to accommodate some of their concerns without compromising my boss’s objectives.  Importantly, I came to know how the Reps were feeling about the changes and how those feelings were likely to influence their morale, commitment and productivity.

In the end, most of the Reps’ income got lowered.  But because I’d taken the time to learn the major sources of pain before we rolled out the new plan, I was able to mitigate most of them by making some final plan alterations.   When the time came to introduce the changes, I specifically pointed out that I truly listened to their concerns and acted on as many of them as I possibly could.

Honestly, the Reps were quite vocal and even angry when the new plan went into effect.  But months later, it became apparent that I’d earned their respect for taking the action I did and for choosing to fully understand how their lives would be upset by it.  We went on to have record sales revenue and profit that year, and I believe my empathy played a huge role in influencing the Reps to excel even when they were earning less.

In the words of Daniel Goleman, author of Emotional Intelligence, the leadership lesson from my experience is this: “When you focus on others, your world expands.”

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By Mark C. Crowley

Mark C. Crowley is the author of Lead From The Heart: Transformational Leadership For The 21st Century which has been taught in 11 American universities. He is a global speaker, leadership consultant and thought leader on the topics of workplace culture and employee engagement.