How to Lead: Empathy, Trust & Respect

Our models on leadership are broken. We know a lot about WHAT it takes to be a leader. We know good leaders are meant to have a vision, motivate others, forge a path, and take their team there.

There are also many truisms related to leadership. For example, Simon Sinek says ‘Leaders Eat Last’. They lead by example, etc. But what’s often lost is the HOW behind it. Behind the lofty words and intentions, there’s a big void where practical skills are ignored.

In this series of posts, I want to focus on these practical micro-skills. My guiding principles are the following:

  1. The principles must be timeless. This is not about a hot new management technique (and I’ll go into why I hate the word ‘management’ later on). These must be based on sound ideas on what makes humans and organizations move for the better.
  2. The principles must be cross-disciplinary. This means they must work equally well with clients & customers, employees and team members, in the corporate setting or at home or at your charity.
  3. They principles must be actionable. There are enough big picture lofty inspirational leadership books. But reading Steve Jobs’ biography won’t make you the next Steve Jobs (and it’s doubtful if you’d even want to, knowing what sort of person he was).
  4. These principles must be tested. They cannot be abstract ideas. They must come with significant validation from history, personal life, biographies, research, etc.

First, let’s learn from Aristotle.

Project Aristotle was a study done by Google and what makes for the most effective teams.

No, not him. Project Aristotle was Google’s attempt at finding out what makes the best teams. The company wanted to see what made for great performance.

Was it having a group of work horses who did the work no matter what? No. More and more, we know that creative work requires the ability to step outside ourselves and have diversity of opinions and thoughts.

Was it having a group of geniuses? No, that wasn’t it either. We can have a group of very smart people, but that doesn’t mean they will work well together.

Was it about teams that have a history of out performing? That’s no answer. You cannot say that the best teams are those that have always been best teams. It’s about finding out what is it about the team that matters more.

Was it about having a common background? Same school, same hobbies, same interests, same age groups? No, no and no.

After years of studying thousands of employees and hundreds of team, Google found (pun intended) that the number one characteristic of a great functioning team is having psychological safety in its culture.

What does that mean? It is “a shared belief held by members of a team that the team is safe for interpersonal risk-taking.” People must feel safe to be human.

As a leader, we create this essential culture within a team where people feel safe, they feel respected, and they have trust. And we don’t necessarily need to have the formal title of a leader to do this. Anyone can help create this, and so we are all free to be leaders.

Yet, most courses of leadership focus on all the things that are not related to creating trust and respect in teams. Most leaders tend to ‘manage’ people as if they were objects. They persuade, manipulate, coerce. They overcome objections, they push, they influence, they try to build rapport. Unfortunately, this type of ‘leading’ also permeates into our personal relationships and causes so much strife. We cannot expect to create
Here’s the dirty secret: people see right through it. For example, the phony rapport building tricks might work for a while, but most people with half a brain understand that you aren’t really interested in what they did over the weekend; you just want to appear social and caring but are much more interested in getting to work.
How do we create trust and respect in a team? How do we build psychological safety? I believe it begins with empathy, trust & respect.
To be trusted is a greater compliment than being loved.
George MacDonald.
 People don’t really understand what empathy means. They confuse it with sympathy and compassion. They make empathy about them. For example, say someone lost a job. You might say something like:
“I heard you lost your job. I’m sorry to hear that. I lost my job 2 years ago and it was on my family. Let me know if you need anything.”
This seems like an appropriate response. It seems vulnerable, it seems empathetic. And it is this distinction that sets Richard Himmer’s book apart and turns the idea of empathy on its head.
Read the statement more closely and let’s break it down. Here’s what it is actually doing:
“I heard you lost your job. I’m sorry to hear that [sympathy — about your feelings]. I lost my job 2 years ago and it was hard on my family [attempt at empathy — also about you]. Let me know if you need anything [compassion].”
In the above statement, we presume to know what they are going through. We presume to know that their job loss has a similar pain to our job loss. This presumption is about us. By denying this person the ability to actually talk about what they’re going through, we give a diluted form of empathy. It robs the other person from sharing what they want to say and being in their own space. Empathy is not being nice and listening. You aren’t a part of empathy. It’s not about your experience. Relating doesn’t help.
A more constructive statement would have been: “What has it been like to lose your job?” Perhaps you might find that they are relieved and happy and did not want your sympathy in the first place.
Yet, relating seems to be the common lesson taught to so many leaders. But that makes it about us, not the other person.
The deepest desire of any human being is the desire to be understood.
The antidote to this is listening with an intent to understand. It isn’t about relating, offering opinions, judgements, trying to find common grounds, telling. More than love, we must give that which people crave for: the desire to be understood. This is how trust is created. And it must happen by giving the one thing that is irreplaceable: our time.
As leaders, we must create a space free of relating, finding commonalities, of unsolicited opinions, of judgement, of telling. We control the conversation, not the person. And from such conversations, we too can get a honest sense of who they are. This creates mutual trust and respect.
This does not mean you cannot set boundaries. In fact, you must. But this method of listening, of practicing empathy creates trust & respect so you can lead effectively.
Getting this right can be big for large corporations, and especially for startups and small businesses that are based on small malleable teams that can move faster and do more. This way of leading is not constrained to a formal position at a job, but anywhere you have influence.
Now we have an understanding of the need to create psychological safety. We learned that the traditional idea of empathy is not real empathy. We learned that in order to lead effectively, we must listen with the intent to understand and create a space free of judgements, opinions, relating, telling.
The above example relates to one very specific example of a job loss, and it seems to make sense within that context to refrain from offering opinions, judgements, etc. However, in the next set of posts, I will break down why these guiding principles are useful in every context (even when a misfortune or disaster is not the subject of conversation).

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