Lead With Empathy

I think that we are in trouble. Let me explain.


A friend was telling me a story the other day. She works in a store that is going out of business and she is amazed by the behavior that she witnesses daily. There are a number of announcements made when they are getting ready to close for the day, and as you can imagine, the workers in the store are looking forward to going home.


She reports that consistently, numerous shoppers will get in line at the very last minute before the doors are locked, with 30 items in tow. This means that they won’t get out of the store usually for another hour.


She finds this frustrating, rude and people don’t seem to even give this unkind behavior a second thought. Sadly, I don’t find it surprising in the least.


In order to take part in this behavior, you have to be focused on your own needs. You need to believe that your needs are more important than some stranger working late in the store. The moment you give thought as to what that other person might be experiencing, and imagine their feelings in the situation, your behavior would probably change.


It’s called EMPATHY and there seems to be an absence of it lately.


Now the reason that this doesn’t surprise me is because I’ve done some research on the subject. I became concerned about this lack of empathy watching people interact around me. Research done from 1979 to 2009 shows that “empathic concern” has declined by 48% and there was a steep decline from 2000 to 2009. The authors speculate that narcissism, prevalence of personal technology, media use in everyday life, shrinking family size and pressures on young people to succeed has contributed to this decline.


A baby is born with the genetic component to feel empathy. When you witness what happens to others, it activates your visual cortex and activates your emotions. In short, you have mirror neurons in your brain that overlap with other people’s actions-if your friend picks a flower, that part of your brain mirrors that. These neurons help you become more empathic toward others.


Empathy is the glue that holds societies together. It helps us thrive and grow in our communities. Then what’s the problem here? Research has shown that you are wired to feel more empathy toward people that resemble and look like you. This biological underpinning enabled us to stay alive many years ago. Today, it negatively impacts us and adds to our division in our communities.


This is in no way an excuse for why we do the things we do. As humans, we are capable of higher-level thinking and not leading with our instinctual response. And as humans, we are able to insist on social norms in our communities that reflect respect of others.


As a leader, there are things that you can do to positively impact this need for empathy. Insist on social norms that encourage empathy and kindness toward others. Model curiosity about others and listen to their stories. The more you understand individuals that are different from you, the more chance that the feeling of empathy will lead to changed behavior and a better community.



Taking Control

Full disclosure-I had a fight with my husband yesterday. I had just spent the last stressful hour at the grocery store. I thought I had timed it right so it wouldn’t be so crowded. However, the store was packed, which made my trip that much more difficult.


You see, I spent every minute thinking through my every move. Am I getting too close to that person by the onions? When will that man be done touching each potato before I can take my turn? Things that I never had to give thought to, now permeate my brain. I used to enjoy my shopping time and pick up a Starbucks at the start of my journey. However, now I strategically map out every move that I plan to make in the store so I can quickly exit the store.


So back to the fight with my husband. After spending the emotionally taxing time in the store, I drove back to the house and unpacked all my food. My husband reviewed some of my purchases and commented on how they weren’t his preferred brands, among other criticisms.


That was all it took to put me over the edge.


I know this might surprise you, but he didn’t understand my strong reaction. What was the big deal? He was upset because what he was expecting was not what I delivered. Never mind that going shopping these days is hit or miss. Will they have the bread I usually buy? Will they actually have eggs? You don’t always get exactly what you would prefer.


My reaction bothered me enough to give it thought. I wondered why he was being so impossible and why I had absolutely no patience for anything.


The truth is that we are all experiencing a loss of control. And when people feel a loss of control, they often look for a scapegoat, someone to blame their misery on.


This is a difficult time that is filled with uncertainty. As a human, you like certainty and understanding how things are going to turn out. And the truth is, no one really knows where all this is going and where you will end up. This makes you feel anxious and not feel in total control of your universe. You like to call the shots and make your own decisions. Right now, that’s just not happening.


And if you don’t believe me, take a look on Social Media. You can see the loss of control right before your eyes. You can also see a number of people trying to control their world by finding blame. Even in this time of crisis when we should band together, you see way too much division, name calling and blame. My favorite are the individuals that post the loveliest messages of hope and then negate all this positivity with posts of hate, blame and divisiveness.


Now is not the time to post political messages that attack others. Now is not the time to post anger, and hurtful messages for those that don’t agree with you. Now is not the time to fight so hard against our current reality because it’s not’s comfortable and not what you want to accept.


Make an effort to rise above all the negativity that is swirling around you.


Look in the mirror and recognize that you are part of the problem. You are the one that is standing in the way of moving forward.


Just accept your reality.






Building Resilience

My son sent me a text with a pic attached from his local Costco. He was standing in a long line that snaked all the way back to the meat section. He reported that people were buying incredible amounts of food and they were out of all their paper products and water. He thought it was comical that people were hoarding water since everyone has access and will continue to have access to fresh water.


Yet, when he got to the front of the line, the worker asked him if he wanted the available bottled water at the counter. Someone had decided against it and left it at the register. He excitedly accepted the water and felt accomplished that he had scored big.


Now, his sane mind told him that he didn’t need this water. However, emotions can apparently be strong motivators. Look around and you can see how this fear can become contagious. I’m sure you see it daily in the grocery stores. Yesterday, I saw people running through a Kroger to snag one of the last available toilet paper packs.


There is no denying that this is a scary time filled with uncertainty. You don’t know from day to day how things are going to change. And the truth is that human beings really don’t like change. Your patterns, routines and habits have all been upended. Kids are out of school, parents are working from home, and all your usual services and supports are closed. All of this combined can make you feel a complete loss of control.


So what can you do about it? Here’s a couple ideas to help you through this time.


Establish a schedule and new routines in your daily life.  Getting exercise and going to the gym daily helps me stay sane. It makes me feel energized for the rest of the day. With the gyms closed, I knew that I needed to establish a new healthy routine. Two days this week I was able to go for a walk outside, and the others, I jumped on the treadmill. The exercise coupled with getting “out of the house”, helped me immensely.


Monitor the amount of time that you spend on Social Media and news. It’s important to stay informed, but too much information can make you feel overwhelmed and can heighten anxiety. I have noticed that when I overconsume news, I become distracted easily and have difficult focusing. When you feel that happening, walk away from your computer and become involved in a different task that’s pleasurable.


Reach out and connect with others

I crave interaction with others. Therefore, staying in my house can feel like a punishment. Make a point to reach out to friends and family as much as possible. Contact that friend you haven’t talked to forever. Check on your elderly neighbor that doesn’t have family in town. With so much technology that enables us to connect, there’s no excuse for not reaching out. Be creative, make a plan and take action.




Focus on doing good for others

Being isolated in the house can lead us to some extraordinary “overthinking”. It can take you back in time, looking at your failures, or worrying about things yet to happen. The best cure for this is to redirect that energy in helping others in need. How can you give back during this time of need? How can you use your talents to help people that are currently struggling?


It’s easy for us to get lost in the moment and feel like this time will last forever. Remind yourself that this is not forever, and this is just a moment in time. If you have too, say this out loud to yourself, when you are having a low moment.


We will all this through this time together.



Revealing Reactions

I was in the home stretch of my walk with my Pug Miles. It was a cold day, and I had dreaded taking this walk the whole afternoon. Despite the cold, I was warming up as we walked briskly to the back of the neighborhood. When Miles was sufficiently tired, we made our way to the front and turned right on our street.


I was lost in thought, finding it ironic that what I had initially dreaded, had become an enjoyable experience. Out of nowhere, I heard yelling and commotion. Before I could react, I looked to my left and saw a large dog barreling toward us at a breakneck speed. A young boy followed, running as fast as his legs could carry him.


To paint a clearer picture, Miles is 11 years old and is not the most athletic dog, and his hearing leaves much to be desired. Pugs are passive dogs by nature and in all the years we’ve had Pugs, I’ve never seen one show any aggression. Basically, they’re wimps. As you can imagine, this other dog definitely had the advantage.


Miles didn’t anticipate a dog in the next few seconds invading his space.  Before I could react, the dog was attacking, growling, and ferociously biting at his neck.


What happened next surprised me. Guttural, horrible sounds were coming out of Miles. Once he got his bearings, he was aggressively attacking this large dog right back. I couldn’t pull them apart, and I was fearful that I was going to be bit by this dog in the process. Finally, the young boy secured his dog, apologized profusely, and left us to walk the rest of the way back home.


When I got home, I checked Miles everywhere to ensure that he hadn’t gotten bit anywhere. You see, this is not the first time Miles has been attacked by a dog. In the past, we have ended up at the vet getting stiches.


Reflecting on the experience, I realized that Miles had learned from his traumatic events that when in doubt, be aggressive. I have seen this side of him and questioned why his reaction was way too extreme and didn’t fit the situation. Not a normal response from a pug, but one that he learned from being in some harrowing circumstances.


And that’s my point to sharing this story.


Think about someone in your personal or professional life that you feel comes on a little too strong. Someone that with the most minor of slight, goes for the jugular. Maybe you refer to this person as being too high strung, or maybe too thin-skinned. Chances are that they have learned this response from their past experiences. They live by a belief system that says, “fight back quickly because people will hurt you” or “people will always take advantage of you”. Therefore, they overcompensate when something happens and go from 0-60 when it doesn’t merit such a reaction.


Maybe as a leader, you have made judgments about this person without considering what’s beneath the quick response. Consider that just maybe this individual really isn’t quite as “mean” as you think, but they “bite back” when the circumstance doesn’t necessarily call for that reaction. Understanding and a productive conversation can lead to this person gaining more self-awareness and the ability to control their reactions.


Leave the judgment at the door and strive for positive change.







Many years ago, I was paired with a woman to work on a project on a volunteer board. We split up the project responsibilities and agreed to speak again in 5 days to review our progress. Within those 5 days, she would send me the completed piece via email so I could review her share before our conversation.


5 days passed with no email in sight. I emailed her on the 5th day to inquire when I would receive her part of the project but heard nothing. On the 6th day, I called on our agreed upon time. She shared that she hadn’t completed it. There was no explanation. In fact, she was a bit indignant that I was reaching out to inquire at all.


I had a strong emotional reaction to this situation. I felt let down and disappointed in my partner and began to form some strong judgments about this woman.


After analyzing the situation, I realized that I reacted strongly because one of the most important values to me is “taking accountability”. I believe that when someone says that they are going to finish a task, it’s imperative that they follow through. In addition, if they haven’t followed through on this task, then they need to take accountability for their actions-or lack thereof.


My point to sharing this story is to help you understand how quickly I made judgments and categorized someone because of my own values and expectations. Yes, taking accountability is important, especially to a leader. However, my strong reaction got in the way of handling the situation appropriately. I don’t have to accept this lack of follow through, but I certainly have to change my reaction so I can deal with someone fairly.


If only I had asked some pointed questions, instead of making judgments, there would have been more understanding between the two of us.


Realizing that everyone has different values that drive their behavior is an important lesson to learn. A prime example of this can be seen daily by scrolling through your social media. I’m sure you have noticed that some individuals feel obligated to post political articles so that they can share their views. It appears that they are driven to help others understand why their perspective is the “right one”. They are so certain about this, that their posts can end up being attacking and sometimes cruel. Of course, you invariably see others responding, not always in the most appropriate way.


If you could take a step back, you might realize that beneath that polarizing post and emotion is a value that’s very important to them. It’s so important to them that they are struggling to understand why you would see it any differently. On your part, you are probably making some very strong judgements about the individual and some sweeping generalizations.


That’s why having a real conversation is so important. With communication, comes understanding. With understanding might come a shift in perspective. But none of this is going to happen if you don’t truly try to understand what is beneath their behavior.


And I’m pretty sure that clarifying someone’s values, that then leads to understanding, definitely is not going to happen on a Social Media political post.


All I am suggesting is that you try look at things from a different perspective. When you are triggered, recognize the value that is not being honored. Learn from this and don’t judge others so harshly in the process.



Positive Stress

As many of you know, I work 12 hours a week at a clinic as a Mental Health Therapist. I can honestly say that 90% of my work is helping individuals deal with the stress that they are experiencing. That’s when it really hit home with me that there was a real crisis when it comes to work and stress.


According to the American Institute of Stress, 40% of workers report that their job is extremely stressful. Up to 80% report that they have experienced stress at some point in their current positions. Stress appears to be a real workplace problem that results in productivity loss, health issues and more.


However, I would like to look at this from another angle. We are always viewing stress from a negative perspective. The truth is that stress can actually serve a positive purpose in life.


Stress helps you understand what is important to you.

Years ago, I was working in a job that was no longer making me happy. Each day I drove to work, I would try to remind myself why I was so lucky to have this job. I would attempt to rationalize how I was in the right place. Yet, I was constantly stressed and anxious.


The bottom line was that I was miserable in that position. I knew in my heart that I didn’t belong there, but I was afraid of a change and to go somewhere else. I was settling so I could stay safe and in my comfort zone. But this decision made me feel uncomfortably stressed.  Listening to my stress, I realized that I was not living true to my values. I value taking risks and I was doing the opposite. My actions and my values were not aligned. In the end, It was this realization that actually propelled me forward to eventually find the right fit for my life.


Stress helps you get things done.

Do you really want to eliminate all the stressors from your life? Well, good luck with that. I’m not a big fan of doing paperwork and I doubt I would get my work completed if I didn’t feel a little bit uncomfortable. I felt that twinge in my stomach yesterday that signals stress and it pushed me to get this blog written. I felt that twinge of stress this afternoon and it pushed me forward to finally call the car dealership and make an appointment for my car. That stressful feeling really comes in handy when you need to accomplish tasks and make your deadlines.


Stressful situations help you toughen up for future challenges.

No one makes it through life without having some bad things happen. And no one gets through life without having some less than spectacular days. However, stressful, uncomfortable times can build resilience for the future. Experiencing these moments and making it through to the other side, empowers you in life. The next time something stressful and uncomfortable happens, you can remind yourself that you are just becoming more resilient with this experience.


Maybe you need to change your mind set when it comes to stress. Instead of having a negative perspective when it comes to stress, begin to see how it can help you become your best self.  

Bucking the Culture

We had completed 40 miles of a bike trip yesterday when I came upon “yellow-shirt man”. Just as I was starting to get tired, I spied a bike up ahead going fairly slow. I yelled out to him that two people would be passing him on the left.  I yelled back a thank-you and sped up to pass him. Was it my imagination, or did he speed up when I began to pass him?  With my little burst of energy, I decided to keep pushing and leave a good amount of space between us.


There I was, pushing hard, and having difficulty lengthening the space between me and yellow shirt man. Why was he so close every time that I looked behind me? I pushed even harder and attempted to distance myself from him, once and for all.


However, it didn’t work. There he was, way too close for comfort. What was his deal? Why was he trying to annoy me?


And then it occurred to me. He wasn’t trying to annoy me. He was biking alone and couldn’t find his motivation to go faster and push out of his comfort zone. When we passed him, he felt our energy and wanted to try to stick with us. He wanted to push himself harder and see if he could compete. He had done a really good job at keeping up with us. I would have never guessed that he would have had the stamina to do that.


Now, what’s this have to do with anything? Well, I was thinking about how it has everything to do with you, as a leader, and how you lead your team.


Let’s say the majority of your team is riding along slowly like “yellow shirt man”. They don’t do exceptional work but they’re adequate employees. You hire in a new employee named Boris that is just exceptional. He’s driven, innovative and a real superstar. This just might motivate the rest of your team to rev up and try to compete with Boris. This could be exactly what they need to kick it into a new gear.


However, the problem is that you have established a culture on your team. Your group has learned that mediocrity is really all that is expected. They might not be able to articulate this, but subconsciously, they have an understanding of your expectations. Boris might heat things up for a while, but probably not for long. Chances are, the team will become antagonized by Boris’s zealous attitude because it threatens the status quo.


Boris is bucking the culture.


Eventually, Boris will leave, frustrated with the team’s behavior. You will be frustrated because you thought bringing in Boris would improve everyone’s performance.


Yes, challenge and competitiveness drives performance. It can light a fire under team members to perform. However, culture trumps everything.


The answer always goes back to you as a leader. Bringing in Boris won’t solve the problem. You need a whole team of Boris clones. And to acquire these clones, you need to have consistent expectations and hold people accountable when they don’t follow through.


You have to expect quality work from the whole team.


Then, the timing is right to bring Boris on board.

Facing the Facts

I have a lot of trees in my yard.  Most of the time, I enjoy the beautiful foliage and appreciate the way they shade my yard. However, in the fall, I wonder whose crazy idea it was to plant so many trees. The amount of falling leaves is overwhelming and the time I must allocate for raking is ridiculous.


Last year, I placed bags of leaves by the road to be picked up by the county. I had worked for hours stuffing leaves in bags and I still was far from done. Apparently, I had the wrong pick-up date and the leaves sat there more than a couple days. When they were finally picked up, I noticed that the grass had died underneath the bags of leaves.


Yesterday, I was walking the dog and we were on our way back to the house.  As I got closer, I took a good look at my yard. My eye went right to the spot where the grass was obviously discolored and dead. The same spot where I had placed the leaf bags 9 months ago.


This was the first time that I was really paying attention to the patch of grass. How could I have not really noticed it until now? How is that possible?


Isn’t it interesting the way our brain plays tricks on us? Why didn’t I notice how bad it looked before now? Every single day I come in my driveway and pass this patch of grass. However, today, is the very first day that I really processed how it was a problem.


Did I consciously avoid this issue that needed to be addressed?


I’m not alone in this type of avoidance. I bet if you rack your brain, you can think of instances where you have been neglecting some issues because they might cause you some distress, discomfort or require some hard work.


I would be a rich woman is I had a dollar for every time I work with a therapy or coaching client that is searching for an easy way to solve their problem. Usually, they have been neglecting, avoiding their issue(s) for quite a while and now they finally want to address the situation. However, they want a quick fix to the situation. Something that won’t cause them to much distress, or won’t be so difficult, or won’t take too much energy.


Yes, we are all looking for that quick fix for that problem that we have been trying to pretend doesn’t really exist.


Maybe you are a leader and you’ve been putting this dysfunctional habit of yours into action with your team.  You’ve been neglecting some things that need to be addressed. And for the first time, you have opened your eyes and realized that you have a big problem. You are wondering, when did this happen? How did this issue become so enormous?


Maybe it’s because you have been conveniently avoiding the whole issue. It’s very possible that it makes you uncomfortable and it will take some hard work to fix.


Open your eyes and see what’s right in front of you. Walk into the storm and face what you need to face, because the issue is not going to go away.


Stop pretending it doesn’t exist and take action NOW.




Creating a Culture

As I sat in the lobby waiting to speak with a potential client, I took a look around their massive space. I had never been there before, and I was impressed with the building. The lobby was new, clean and impeccably decorated. I sat waiting for my contact as I spied their mission and values on display. I read through the information and was impressed again by the mission and the values that represented this company. I was excited to talk to this organization and learn more about their people.


We were having a nice talk when I brought up the awesome mission and values on display in the lobby. I loved that they were on full display for everyone to see. My contact agreed and said that they had done a great job creating those values a while back. After some probing questions on my part, my contact began to get a little more transparent.


He told me the whole truth.


He wanted to address issues concerning each departments inability to come together and work as one unified team. The problem was that each department viewed their responsibilities as most important, most valued, and failed to see how they had a responsibility to work better with others. They couldn’t grasp that their organization only succeeded when all the departments worked together seamlessly to create the perfect product.  At this point, they were far from perfect. The product was suffering because of the inability for all the teams to see they were working toward the same goal.


After more probing, I discovered that leaders were struggling to be assertive and handle situations when they arose. They constantly shied away from conflict and swept it under the rug. And invariably, the truth came out in passive-aggressive behaviors between team members and leaders.


Even though it is obvious to you and me, that this company was in dire need of an intervention, this leader in charge was ambivalent about moving ahead in any way. It was apparent that the status quo was a much more comfortable place to hang out, than making these much-needed changes.


Now, remember the company’s mission and values prominently displayed on the wall?  They were really great values like respect, communication, transparency and teamwork.


I can’t tell you how many times that I have uncovered a huge disconnect between the organization’s spoken values and the daily behaviors that take place inside the organization. And that’s what we are talking about-the thousands of rituals that occur inside an organization, day to day. All these many behaviors add up to a culture that doesn’t quite meet the standards of their proposed values. Over time, these seemingly insignificant tiny reactions become your culture. And every day that you don’t face the truth about your culture, your organization suffers.


As uncomfortable as it might be, I’m asking you to take an honest look at your organization. Are you and your team living up to the values that represent the organization? What changes need to be put in place to meet this goal? It’s time to take action and develop a game plan to attack the issues.




Set Your Own Path

I like to watch out the window when I’m working out at the gym. This morning, there wasn’t too much to see.  It was pouring rain, and everyone was rushing in and out of their cars. As I watched the rain come down, I noticed a little mallard duck behind a car. Obviously, this was the perfect day for him.  He was making his way across the parking lot, back and forth, like he had a goal that he needed to accomplish.


I continued to watch him make his way across the street. He would slow down and look around for a few minutes. However, that wouldn’t last too long. He would quickly take off again, walking with purpose here and there. And then it dawned on me…


Where were all the other ducks?


Ducks are very social animals and like to stick in groups. I scanned the parking lot for other mallards but failed to find any other birds. I continued to watch him for a while, waiting to see another duck appear. It became clear that this was a lone duck.


Seeing this guy out there all alone reminded me of all the times in my career that I was out there “alone”. If you don’t know what I referring to, let me explain.  There must have been times in your career that you didn’t follow the crowd.


Think about it.


For me, it was the time that I had the courage to say what everyone else was afraid to admit. Now, I’m not going to lie to you and tell you that it all worked out well. It didn’t. However, it was the right thing to do, and someone needed to do it. And I was the only one that was willing to stick my neck out. And if I could rewind the “tape” and have a do-over, I would do exactly the same thing.


Even if the result was painful. I would still definitely do it again because it was the right thing to do in that situation.


When you are experiencing this moment, you feel like that mallard that I saw walking back and forth in the street.  At times, you are sure of your intentions, and feel good about your decisions and direction in life. You have purpose, integrity and are following your compass. The next moment, you are stuck. You are unsure what step you should take next and whether you just made a colossal mistake. And maybe you spend a little time like the mallard duck, not moving, wondering what the heck to do next.


And it’s certainly painful being out there all alone. We all want to be part of our social group.


Exceptional leaders go through this experience at some point in their career. They need to make a split decision that might upset the balance of their organization. Their actions can cause them to feel isolated and make them question their decision-making skills. But the truth is, you can’t become an exceptional leader unless you are willing to upset the balance now and then. Eventually, something will happen and you will feel compelled to make a change that will not be readily accepted.


So take a tip from your friend the mallard and stay the course. Reflect on your actions and be clear on what is the right way to move forward and meet your goals.  Don’t be influenced by the popular decision, the one that will keep you comfortable and will ensure the status quo. As a leader, you are tasked to make the right decision-no