“I See You” – Why Empathy is Crucial for the Future of Leadership



One of the our basic human needs is to belong.

In 1943 Maslow proposed his Hierarchy of needs, A Theory of Human Motivation. On that hierarchy next to human physical needs such as food and safety, was belonging, the need for love, friendship and to be part of a group.

More recently many leadership experts have cited its importance; Susan Fowler author of Why motivating people doesn’t work calls it relatedness, “caring about and feeling cared about, feeling connected without ulterior motives, and contributing to something greater than oneself.”

If we are to acknowledge belonging as a strong human motivator, surely there comes a need for us to lead in a certain way?

So how do we lead to help people feel like they belong?
How do we give them this relatedness at work?
How do we show them they are seen, heard and understood?

In the movie Avatar, the words “I see you” are an acknowledgement of this understanding, a deep connection to another. We all long to hear these words from people and not just in a romantic relationship but in our friendships, our family and working relationships. It’s a connection that goes deeper than most interactions, it acknowledges that inner part of us, the piece we think nobody knows is there. We all want to feel connected, relevant, recognised.

To feel this type of connection with another human being it is necessary to have empathy, empathy allows us to relate to the emotions or experiences of others, empathy means we care.

But empathy is far too often lacking in the workplace;

We live in a individualist world where more and more the collective spirit is being lost, we are thought to fend for ourselves to look after number one. For the last few decades we have promoted self interest in the interest of mental health and self esteem, but the more we isolate ourselves the less we connect and the less we connect, the unhappier we seem to become.

Human beings are social animals we are designed to live in groups, to depend on each other for comfort, security and the longevity of our race. In tribal societies the collective is the only manner of being. A person never thinks of himself but of the good of the whole. The philosophy of Ubuntu is widely recognised. In the west we have strayed too far from this thinking, we shut people out, we forget about family and community and we focus too much on our own personal happiness and success.

We need to bring the collective spirit back into the workplace. There has been an attempt at doing just that over the recent past with collaborative workspaces and tools that enable workers to interact and communicate more readily. While these promote a more collectivist environment they do so on a more superficial level. They encourage people to come together but it doesn’t encourage them to think or to feel in a collectivist manner. We need to enable a form of compassion to encourage workers to consider the position of others on their team as much as their own position. This can be done through many methods but here are a couple of suggestions.

Encourage Mentoring

The mentor/mentee relationship really allows people to get to know their mentee and see things through their eyes. It is a powerful relationship which gives both parties great benefits, in these relationships it is not just the person being mentored that benefits, the mentor usually older and more experienced can also benefit from the perspective of someone younger and often more digitally savvy. The relationship provides an opportunity for both people to practise their listening skills a crucial element in empathy and connection.

Remind People How to Listen

Too few people are good listeners. We all think we can listen but what most of us do is just hear what is being said. To really listen we must practise active listening, that is to listen with eyes, ears and energy.

We cannot deny we are energetic beings and our energy interacts with each other. The culture of an organisation is affected by the sum of the parts.

As a consultant I visit many workplaces. There are those that are bright and colourful, full of playthings and nice food but the energy and the feeling around the place is not created by the bright colours or the broad menu. The energy is created by the people and in these environments the people are usually treated with respect and dignity. Their viewpoints listened to and their presence appreciated. In organisations with positive cultures, people are seen. It’s not that difficult to do, ask yourself “Are you really listening?”

Challenge people to a week of “two ears and one mouth”. This will help them to become more self aware of how much they talk and how little they listen.

Foster a Culture of Coaching

One of the reasons I love to coach is that I get to see people. I get a privileged glimpse at the real person, mask off. When I sit across from each person I coach, I give myself to that person, to their challenges, their hopes and their dreams. I never feel tired or frustrated I feel energised by their potential, excited by possibility, in that time we connect and with this connection great feats can be accomplished.

Empathy is a skill coaches must have and a skill all leaders and managers need to hone. With Empathy we can move people, make change happen and with some simple tools it can be learnt.

Diversity and Inclusion

While diversity and inclusion is in fashion at the moment if we were an empathetic race there would be no requirement to shine a light on this area. Understanding other cultural perspectives or sexual orientations is a matter of both listening to understand and one of acceptance. We all want to be understood, to be acknowledged for who we are. We cannot know or understand all cultures and customs, nor expect to understand all our team mates personalities or team profiles on day one. We just need to be open, listen and learn from each other.

You would expect after years of studying organisational culture and team work all employees would understand that some of their team mates are extroverts and some are introverts. The most basic element of human personality still massively misunderstood. Even at home we overlook our personality types, we expect our children to behave like we do. If they like to read books we encourage them to get active, if they don’t like to read books we encourage them to read them. While of course all children need a balance, we would cause them a lot less stress if we understood who they are. If parents, siblings and teammates all understood and acknowledged each person’s personality type and differences there would be a lot less fighting and a lot more harmony and understanding.

Becoming more conscious of the needs of others is so important for our happiness and success but on a grander scale we also need to remember that connecting with our fellow human beings is what is necessary to ensure our future generations have a place to live and organisations to work in. Human community is necessary to put this planet back on the right track. Until we turn away from our selfish thoughts and desires and face the fact that no one person can save the planet nothing will be enough. We all need to shift our mindset from separate to together from me to us from selfish to love.

If we can practise empathy both at home and in the workplace we will create more leaders who will bring a brighter energy in our day and positively shape the future for all of us.


Post Script:
The Sanskrit word Namaste, which is accompanied by the gesture of bowing while placing the hands together at the heart literally translated means I bow to you. This is a beautiful acknowledgement of connection and an acknowledgment of the soul in one by the soul in another.

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Comments (2)

Love love love what you have to say about community. I think you are spot on. We have learn to live and to be able to thrive in community. We are social beings, and we can get so much energy out of helping other people. I know I always feel good after helping people, even in a small way. Most of us are so fortunate to have what we have, and it is incumbent upon us to share that with others.

Thanks Jordan, let’s do what we can to foster community and hopefully others will follow..

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