Empathy: The New Nonnegotiable Leadership Trait

Empathy became somewhat of a buzzword in recent years. But 2020 demonstrated empathy’s timeless relevance in both our personal lives and the business world.

Last year, most of us became remote workers practically overnight. And for many, this meant juggling our families and back-to-back online meetings. For others, it meant near-constant solitude for long periods of time.

“One of the things I think people have not been speaking enough about is that concept of empathy,” said technology industry analyst Maribel Lopez in a podcast. “We see that people are starting to focus on employee wellness, as an example, whether that’s posting educational programs, whether it’s mandating ‘no work’ days or reconfiguring schedules and physical workspaces so that people feel safe and they can practice social distancing. So, I think this concept of empathy for what your employees are dealing with right now, that’s something we need to focus more on.”

Wherever we are on the spectrum of surrounded to lonely, we all have one thing in common: We need empathy from our managers, teams and leaders to make it work. To dive deeper, I spoke with several executives at VMware to learn how effective leaders use empathy to drive impact and employee value.

A Nonnegotiable Leadership Trait

As both business leaders and everyday people, practicing empathy is nonnegotiable. In fact, “it’s a requirement to be a part of our community,” said Betsy Sutter, executive vice president and chief people officer, VMware.

Sutter believes leaders can’t meet the needs of customers and employees without deeply understanding them first. And businesses won’t attract or retain the best talent without empathetic leaders. Yet, feeling, expressing and practicing empathy effectively doesn’t come naturally to us all. This is especially true when business demands seem to get in the way.

“I wasn’t always good at it,” said Sanjay Uppal, senior vice president and general manager, VMware. “I had a lot to learn and am still learning.”

Indeed, Sutter and Uppal pointed to times they were under too much pressure to be as empathetic as they should have been. Now, both believe empathy must be developed like any other leadership trait.

Empathy Begins with Listening

Problem solving is a tempting approach when a loved one, colleague or employee reaches out for support. However, problem solving often leaves the person on the other side of the conversation feeling unheard and dismissed. Instead of trying to solve the problem, leaders advise acknowledging its difficulty, asking questions and expressing support.

VMware Chief Customer Officer Sumit Dhawan shared a story about making a difficult decision that had a significant impact on his team. Dhawan focused on the logic behind the decision and the many benefits associated with it—to no avail. The team wasn’t convinced.

“I should have made more of an effort to really understand why they were so hesitant,” Dhawan reflected.

Dhawan’s situation in that moment was one we can all relate to: Frequently feeling too rushed, too stressed or too familiar to keep empathy top of mind. And this leads to mistakes both in the leader-employee relationship and for the business. According to Dhawan, leaders tend to consciously lead with empathy less and less as the relationship progresses, or in other words, take someone for granted.

“It’s easier to make assumptions when you know someone well, so it’s important to stay aware of the work it takes to continually empathize,” said Dhawan.

Another VMware leader, Fidelma Russo, asks open-ended questions to demonstrate that all ideas are welcome. She also taps on more outspoken employees to “break through politeness” in meetings. This enables colleagues to share how they really feel. It also builds a shared team understanding of acceptable behavior.

“You have to call people out when they’re being disrespectful or dismissive of norms,” said Russo.

Putting in the Hard Work

Empathy is not all feel-good, heartfelt conversation.

In Harvard Business Review’s How Leaders Can Open Up to Their Teams Without Oversharing, Liz Fosslien and Mollie West Duffy wrote, “We tend to assume that leaders are marketing to us. If a leader never shows emotion, that conviction only becomes stronger.”

Practicing empathy also requires candor, accountability and hard work—especially during such a difficult time as 2020. Challenges did not disappear with the new year—and will not for quite some time. In these unprecedented times, how we show up is more important than ever.

“You have to go there,” said Sutter, referencing the difficult conversations many leaders are now fielding around the pandemic, racial injustice and more.

Teams look to leaders for support, guidance and inspiration. Yet, they also need to understand what leaders value and how they expect individuals to behave. By leading with empathy, leaders cultivate a team culture of trust and connection, empowering people to perform at their best.