This One Skill Can Make You a Better Boss

What is it that every great boss has, and every rotten boss lacks? Here's a clue: it's not a fancy degree or something you can buy.

The answer is empathy.

With it, you can be a boss that is revered. Without it, you're tone deaf and often hated. Along with your actual ability to do the job, it is the most important trait of a truly superb manager.

What is empathy?

This may sound like an obvious, or even patronizing, question to ask. But empathy is often confused with sympathy, which is related, but different.

According to, empathy is "the ability to identify with or understand the perspective, experiences, or motivations of another individual and to comprehend and share another individual's emotional state."

Sympathy is feeling pity or sorrow for someone else. It is more general, and more distant. Empathy is deeper. It means that you can put yourself in the other person's place, and share their emotions and outlook on life. "I feel sorry for you" is sympathy; "I feel your pain" is empathy.

The importance of empathy in the workplace

Whenever people are asked why they quit their job, "the boss" is often among the top answers. That is no coincidence. Whether the boss is a bully, or just inept, it can make a workplace intolerable. In many cases, a lack of empathy is to blame.

Employees want to feel understood and appreciated. An empathetic boss will not only fulfill those needs, but will do it in a way that does not feel forced or "required by management."

If you are not a naturally empathetic person, don't worry. With enough time, support, and encouragement, managers can learn to be empathetic. Here are some positive steps you can take right now to become that beloved boss.

1. Put yourself in the shoes of various employees for a day

It may not always be practical, or even possible. But if you can walk in an employee's shoes for the day — or even a few hours — it can completely open your eyes and show you a whole new perspective. This is especially important if you did not come up through the ranks.

From taking orders at the front of the store, to working on the production line, to assembling a report, you will gain firsthand experience of the different roles for which you are responsible. It will also send a positive message to your staff.

2. Conduct more one-on-one and group interviews

Your employees want to feel heard. If you never give them the chance to tell you what's on their minds, you aren't leading with empathy.

So, arrange regular appointments with them, either for private interviews or group meetings, and let them clear the air. Be open to new ideas, and do not use this time to rebuke anyone, or shoot down suggestions. Make it a positive experience that they look forward to, and make sure good things come from it. Act on the ideas you like, and tell them why you're not implementing ideas you don't like.

3. Get to know staff personally

Ask people how their weekends were. Get to know them beyond the daily grind. How's the family? Are they taking on a lot of extra work at home? This could be the reason they look tired, and have made some mistakes recently. Have they had a major life change, or has there been a bereavement? The more you know, and genuinely understand, the more empathetic you will be, which will in turn make you a better boss.

4. Be open with the staff

You're not expected to be everyone's best friend. You're a boss, and you should define those boundaries. But, there is absolutely nothing wrong with telling people about some of your own management struggles.

Your staff may be annoyed because you haven't implemented something they have been requesting for months. Explaining that you have, in fact, been trying to push that through upper management and are being stonewalled will let the team know you're on their side. Don't pass the buck, bad-mouth your bosses, or make yourself out to be a victim. Just let them know you're working for them.

5. Learn to read body language

If you ask how someone's doing and they say they're fine, it may not be the end of the conversation. How do they look? How's their stance? Is their head drooping? Fingers constantly fidgeting? There may be something they want to tell you, but are hesitant to ask. You can break the silence and find out what's wrong. Don't prod. Simply showing genuine concern can have a major positive impact on how your employees view you.

Above all, be honest, sincere, and understanding of what your employees do. Learn more about their work, their troubles, their lives, and their hopes for the future. Even if you cannot solve their immediate problems, understanding them will make your staff feel so much better having you as their boss.

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