Lead with empathy and understanding

Columnist Dave Conrad says compassion is a key component in being a good manager.

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Dear Dave,

My team is knowledgeable and seasoned, but our manager has the coldest heart I have ever seen. For example, if one of the team has a family member problem and needs a little time (one or two days) to be with that person, they are turned down and told — more or less — “If you can’t work, then you shouldn’t be here.” Some good coworkers of mine have left because of her poor, threatening treatment. Why does she act this way and what must she do to be a better leader?

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— P

Dear P,

The basics of workplace leadership are not that complicated but the leader — your manager — must want to lead with compassion, understanding, fairness, and a desire to model self-awareness and emotional control. Simply, it is not a sin for managers to become close to their employees and lead with a balance of technical skills and Emotional Intelligence.


I know. I know. Anyone reading my words will say to themselves, “What the heck does Dave mean when he mentions Emotional intelligence?” Suffice it to say — especially in your case — that Emotional Intelligence is used and displayed when your manager seeks to understand the emotions of herself and you employees, and to stay cool and analytical when things become chaotic or in everyday employee interactions.

Management is tough stuff and often, when an employee becomes a manager, that person finds that management is a thankless living hell, and she or he wants to get out of the role and get back to the pack. In short, management is not for everyone, and your boss has decided to do her work as simply as possible, and to join the ranks of managers that have traded kindness and interest for strict “command and control” tactics.

The data is clear — research shows that employees who work for compassionate managers are 25% more engaged in their jobs (nice), 20% more committed to the organization (also very nice), and 11% less likely to burn out (should be much higher). But too many organizations still have rigid hierarchies and treat their employees more like disposable resources than humans, requiring excessively long hours, unclear expectations and no sense of purpose whatsoever.

Leading by example

Let’s get back to that word, compassion. It is an essential component of good leadership. But it can be a difficult desire to live up to when the company’s culture and the leadership structure is more ruthless and merciless. There may be inspirational pictures and phrases hanging on the wall, but they don’t mean a thing when it is much easier for managers to just pounce on their employees and be domineering — and have no regard for empathy and understanding.

I know I will be viewed as someone that makes all managers look bad, when the fact is I would love to only tell tons of stories about inspirational managers that have shown their staff a high regard for their education, their personal lives, their input and feedback, and their stability and sense of purpose. At the end of the day, I believe controlling, domineering managers are more exhausted than managers that treat their teams with kindness, friendliness and warmth. Yes, I said warmth — employees are not cogs in a machine.

I am not saying that a manager should be all “touchy-feely.” But I would like to see all managers act and create change by utilizing the thinking and creativity of the team. Involvement, trust, and empathy will go a long way in leading by example. Employees study their managers every day and sometimes all day to see how their manager will handle a crisis, remain calm and cool, and take responsibility for mistakes — asking for support or forgiveness when necessary.

Managers become leaders when they recognize that they can never be everything to everyone. They have limits and they often have to make choices that are difficult for their team to swallow.

However, if a manager can keep morale strong, provide their employees opportunities to submit ideas and innovations, and inspire them to want to grow their careers, I would say that the manager is nurturing those things that matter most to employees.


Good managers also demonstrate the importance of accomplishment and accountability. They invest time and energy to change working conditions and create an environment where employees can thrive and develop their talents. And they know when to let employees work things out on their own — as long as the employees will not get hurt or waste a gazillion dollars.

Suffer or leave

I hate to say it, but the happiest people I knew were the ones that knew when it was time to ditch a job and company and go to work — or start their own business — where they would be treated with respect and their skills and thinking would be welcomed and developed. It’s a tough decision, but it must be made.

Contact Dave Conrad with questions or comments at . Conrad is an associate professor of business at Augsburg University in Rochester.

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