The Lessons of Empathetic Leadership
Updated: Mar 31
To be an empathic leader, one must be apt in identifying with and relating to others to support, motivate, and empower them effectively.
Building successful, customer-focused products is the primary task of a product manager. However, developing products isn’t the only thing that PMs are responsible for. As leaders, we must build up the people around us with empathy, gratitude, and motivation.
Why is it essential for product leaders to build people?
Studies have repeatedly shown that employees want their leaders to care about their well-being. If a leader does not show appreciation or compassion to their teams, employees in turn will not care about their leader or the organization.
The last twenty months of the pandemic have brought invaluable lessons regarding employee engagement. The science of human relationships elucidates that we all want to be seen, heard, and validated. Therefore, we expect our leaders and organization to care about our well-being. This is the new normal.
As product leaders, we are in an incredible, unique role where we can lead the cultivation of emotional bonds between our direct reports, scrum teams, teammates, colleagues, and partners to our work and projects. We can get the whole organization to rally around a common cause or project with our influence.
To develop trustworthy leadership, product leaders must make an effort to show their teams that they care about them. A couple of ways to do so is by checking in with them, making efforts to build a relationship with them, recognizing their accomplishments, and treating them like family. In essence, product leaders need to create a community around their cross-functional teams.
What is empathy?
Empathy (empatheia) is an invaluable leadership characteristic. It can be described as having the capacity to ascertain and assimilate another person‘s circumstances, emotions, and motivations. Our ability to recognize other people's anxieties means we can put ourselves in their shoes.
Why is leading with empathy critical?
There is no roadmap for leadership or product management while in the middle of a global pandemic. Twenty months later, we are still coping and having to rewrite the rules about what leadership truly means and what it will be moving forward - even post-pandemic.
Empathy is a revered skill because it enables us to establish and cultivate credence with our cross-disciplinary teams. Furthermore, it provides us discernment into other people’s emotions or thoughts, and it allows us to fathom people‘s responses to a set of circumstances, thereby refining our leadership attributes.
Studies have affirmed that organizations and leaders embracing empathy and making it a part of their ethos tend to have happy, engaged, high-performing, diverse teams that build best-in-class products.
Empathy has never been more paramount. The pandemic has directly affected our well-being, mental fitness, and workplace citizenship. We are all experiencing unease about the world, our families, careers, and the uncertainty of what life will be like post-pandemic.
Here are a few things I put into practice to help build trust with my cross-functional teams:
1. Cultivate a relationship
Product leaders must endeavor to show their teams that they care about them. A couple of ways to do so is by checking in with them - even the small gestures make a difference. For example, I have colleagues who check in on their direct reports every day. They spend about 10 minutes just catching up with them, and it’s impactful.
We can show compassion to our multi-functional teams by acknowledging their fears, listening, laughing, providing encouragement, and asking questions like “what can I do to make your day better,” “how can I help,” “how are you.” Essentially, you want to let them know that you’re there to support them.
The science of human relationships demonstrates that we want to be seen, heard, acknowledged, and valued. In order to enhance our own and our team’s engagement, we must be present during our team meetings, discussions, and 1-1s. We have to take care not to be engrossed in other matters, as not being fully present can lead to aggravations, demoralization, and loss of inspiration in our multi-functional teams.
As product leaders, we have an exceptional opportunity to make a difference in the lives of the people with whom we work. It starts with getting to know them. The names of their family members, things going on in their lives, learning about their professional and personal objectives, and even sending thank you notes of gratitude when extraordinary efforts have been made. If they face challenges (professional or personally), we acknowledge them by offering support any way we can or simply writing them a personal message of reassurance.
Product leaders who take the time to listen to their cross-functional teams tend to be much better at developing long-term connections. They are also more efficacious when it comes to instigating participation and teamwork. Additionally, PMs who listen are deemed to be persuaders influencers because they recognize the all-important skill of listening; knowing when to be quiet. They let their teams express their viewpoints and difficulties before providing an assessment.
The importance of active listening to direct reports, cross-functional teams, colleagues, and partners has never been more valuable. Now more than ever, these last 20 months have demonstrated the importance of listening to one another and how by doing so, we can transform, align, and inspire each other - thus building innovative, best-in-class products.
An empathetic leadership style brings significant benefits to an organization.
Empathy is one of the most consequential characteristics a leader can exemplify. When product leaders show a sincere interest in their cross-functional teams’ lives, whether it be difficulties they’re facing or their general well-being - these actions make their team members more motivated, productive, and comfortable in the workplace.
Furthermore, a product leader who puts empathy into practice will also have cross-disciplinary team members who embody motivation, empathy, and trust - which has a domino effect throughout the organization. Then, we have individuals who care and nurture each other.