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.



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.







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.




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

Feel the Change

You just came up with the greatest idea ever. How do you go about convincing your team that this new idea, program etc. is the way to go? How do you encourage your team to get on board and commit to this great change that you want to put in place?


Exceptional leaders understand that sometimes they need to flex their persuasive muscle.


Understanding organizational Change and how employees react to change, is my sweet spot. However, I was surprised by a recent experience that I had working with a client. In my haste to get to the finish line, I realized that I had left out important steps needed to help someone shift perspective and embrace change.


I was coaching a client on improving their team’s performance. I knew that the team would greatly benefit from some soft skills training. I droned on and on about all the different training pieces that could be presented, but I didn’t sense any traction. On and on I went, like a broken record, for a number of different sessions. However, I was met with a number of reasons why none of the trainings would be the right fit.


I was frustrated.  I knew exactly what would solve the problem, but obviously, my client just couldn’t visualize this.  At the next session, I decided to take the client through a self-awareness exercise that would help him envision firsthand, what his team could experience.


As we worked our way through the exercise, I closely watched the leader. I began to see how things were beginning to come into focus for him. It began to solidify a number of issues for the leader and what was truly important to him.


Once we had this experience, I asked him to think about his team. What would they gain out of this experience? What would they learn about themselves and how would it help them become better employees and people?


The lightbulb had turned on.


He finally understood how this experience could be a great start to helping his team grow. You could see the excitement and passion as the two of us talked about how we could accomplish this and where this would lead.


And that’s when I realized that I was forgetting an important part of helping someone embrace change. Facts and data were just not going to sell him on the value of this process. Yes, it might be a piece of it, but I needed to do more if I wanted him to move forward.  I needed to make him “feel” the change and be emotionally involved in the experience.


I had forgotten something so simple.


Are you in the process of making some changes at work? Don’t underestimate the need to get your people on board. Giving them the facts to back up this change is essential, however, don’t forget how emotion also plays into the process. Help them “feel” the need for change.


Learning to Lead

I talk to many aspiring leaders that are striving to be happier and more successful at work. Invariably, the discussion will come around to their own leader’s attributes and they’ll begin to share the truth, the whole truth. Comments like, “I really shouldn’t say this” or “He really isn’t that bad”, are shared. They feel bad saying anything, because despite the leader’s handicaps, these great future leaders still feel loyal. Loyal to someone that hasn’t really been there for them. And for every leader that still feels loyal, there’s another that’s just disengaged from their work.


There’s a lot of mediocre leaders out there that aren’t engaging their employees. They don’t know how to give their employees what they really need to do their best. And if they did, they would have stellar employees that would drive the company forward.


So be honest right now. Do you see yourself if any of these?


He puts his head in the sand when things get tough.

Your boss excels in handling tasks daily, but when it comes to navigating people’s emotions, he will avoid the whole situation. He just won’t go there. He knows that there’s rumblings of employees not getting along, but he will hope that it all goes away without his interference. Eventually, things will come to a head when the “problem” grows into a massive issue that has infected the whole team. After months and months of doing nothing, the leader finally acts and expects everything to be solved with this one intervention. However, things have progressed too far for one simple intervention to work. By this point, the relationship issue has affected the team culture.


Now, he has an even bigger problem.


She is inconsistent in her actions

You just never know how your boss is going to act. He could be extremely happy, or he could be agitated beyond belief. By the way, I once was in a meeting with a leader discussing some financial issues. It was pretty mundane facts that were being discussed. Suddenly, she went into a tailspin, that culminated with her jumping up and slamming the door. It was pretty scary stuff that was never fully explained to me. However, my reaction to this incident was never knowing what to expect in the following interactions. I went into each situation, not trusting what would come next. In addition, employees would withhold information because her team was terrified of her possible reaction.


This behavior doesn’t exactly encourage a great working relationship with a young leader.


He cares more about his own needs than the needs of the team

And the team knows this because the leader shows this to them time and time again. When someone wants the opportunity to move upward in the organization, he doesn’t support the employee.  Your boss will claim that it’s because he’s not ready for the opportunity, but the truth is, he doesn’t want to lose the great worker. He consistently does what’s best for him and his needs, never his employees. He is focused on his own path to reaching his goals. The employees are very clear on this fact which maybe explains the turnover in his department. However, he will find a way to also blame this on his team.


These are extreme examples of leaders that have a lot of growing to do. However, maybe you see a sliver of yourself in one of these scenarios. If so, you have some work to do before you reach your potential. Keep moving forward and strive to become an excellent leader that stands out-for the right reasons.

Accepting Change

I eavesdropped on a conversation at the gym the other day. A woman was describing to her friend the reason that she hadn’t been to the gym in a very long time. She shared that she had been too busy and she couldn’t fit working-out into her schedule. Her friend then took it upon herself to spend the next 10 minutes trying to help her overcome this problem. However, for each solution the friend threw her way, the woman had a very convincing rationalization for why that would never work. Does this sound familiar to you?


Maybe this reminds you of someone at work. You have long in-depth conversations about needed behavior change with an employee, but nothing ever really changes. Maybe this hits a little close to home. The confusing thing is that you might have a heartfelt desire to change, but you never seem to really move forward in any way.  So what is really holding you back?


“If it’s important to you, you’ll find a way. If not, you’ll find an excuse”. Author Unknown


Maybe it’s really not that important to you.


Changing a habit is hard work and if you don’t make it a priority, you’ll never make that change. There will always be something else rivaling for your valuable time. There may be a piece of you that truly wants to change, but there’s another bigger part that isn’t really sold on the idea. And, some changes are easier than others. It always goes back to the pleasure vs. pain thing. The more painful the change, the harder to change the habit. As you probably know, we tend to shy away from experiences that are painful. In fact, we will go out of our way to avoid them.


Maybe you have a competing commitment. On a conscious level, you definitely want to change. However, you are as confused as anyone as to why it’s not happening for you. It’s possible that you have a commitment to something else that is impeding your progress to accomplish your goal. For example, let’s pretend that your boss wants to groom you for the next big position. This is exciting and thrilling to hear that she believes in you. You just have to increase your sales by 15%. You know this is a doable, reasonable goal to meet. Yet, for the next 6 months, your numbers go down, down, down. This is frustrating because your numbers haven’t decreased in three years.


So, what’s really going on here?


Deep down on a subconscious level, you have a strong belief that you should spend more time with your children. This new position would involve more time and more travel. You have worked hard for 10 years just to receive this promotion. However, you never peeled back the layers to really look at what’s truly important to you. Apparently, this value of spending more time with your children is more important to you than you anticipated. It is driving your behavior in ways that shock you. For some reason, it’s hard for you to accept this truth.


The bottom line to Change is this-Before you work on a behavior CHANGE, be sure to take some time to reflect on what you really want in life.  The answer may surprise you.

Building Confidence

There’s a chance that you might be a fairly confident individual. On the majority of occasions, you are able to manifest the needed courage and strength to speak up and say the hard stuff to a room full of strangers. Most times, you have the guts to dive in and take a risk to go for that new demanding position they just posted.


However, at some point in your life, a situation will occur that requires an extra heaping dose of confidence. Maybe you have just come off a disappointing experience or you’ve become comfortable (a little too comfortable) in life. The point is, when you dig down deep in the well, nothing will come up. And this will scare you.


So, what can you do to boost your confidence?


Let go of that experience when you failed

Everyone has experienced that one epic fail that rocked their world.  You know, the one that made you want to stay in bed for a month and never go back to interacting with humanity. The one that truly devastated you and made you question your worth to society. The majority find a way to move on, make sense of the situation and find meaning in the fail. Some even use the fail as a way to find passion and energy to perform even better in the future. However, there are a few that lug this “fail” around with them wherever they go for the rest of their lives, using this experience to define who they are. If you see yourself in this, recognize that this past fail maybe influencing your present, which then simply becomes part of your future. Make a conscious decision to let go of this experience and move on.


Think back to your most powerful moment

Everyone has at least one experience in their past where they felt confident, strong and powerful. You know, that one time where you were able to say and do exactly the right thing at the right moment. Acknowledge that this experience is proof that you can be the confident person that you aspire to be.  Visualize every detail of that experience and the emotions that you felt from the beginning to end. Play it in your head like a movie that you are watching over and over again. This is your reminder that you are a capable, courageous person.


Say “yes” to challenges

I was having a conversation with a woman the other day about a new exercise she was going to try. It was her friend’s idea to attend this class and she wasn’t looking forward to it. In fact, if her friend wasn’t pushing her, she would not be attending. I reminded her that it’s important to try new things and get outside her comfort zone. You say “no” to new things because the fear of failure is overpowering. The fear of “looking stupid” or “not being the best” influences your decision. Every time you back down and say no to trying something different and new, you take a little chip out of your confidence. Maybe you don’t notice daily, but over time, saying no and giving in to “that uncomfortable feeling” zaps your power. Start saying “yes” and learn how it builds your confidence and makes you feel as if you can tackle just about anything.


View your loss of confidence as a temporary situation. Your brain is wired to easily point out where you have failed, and less good at reminding you of all the many times that you have overcome great odds and soared. Push yourself to focus on the numerous experiences that reveal how courageous you truly are.


Second Chances

I was driving downtown yesterday when a memory popped in my head. I was a young leader, having a conversation with one of my employees. During that time, I was a very involved leader that worked hard to see my people succeed and meet their potential. I focused on their strengths and supported them to achieve their goals.


Maybe I worked a bit too hard.


There was one young woman in particular that stands out in my memory. I really admired her since she had worked her way up from an entry-level job to hold a management position. At the time, top leadership was unhappy with her performance and I was spending more and more time with her to ensure that she progressed in her skills. I recognized her strengths and they far outweighed her weaknesses. Believing in her completely, I constantly defended her with upper leadership and gave her second chances to improve on her performance.


Many second chances.


The problem was that her performance continued to lag and upper leadership continued to pressure me. Over and over, I would have wonderful heart to heart talks with her and she would promise that things would improve. However, things stayed exactly the same.


Finally, I was forced to let her go from her position when the pressure became too great. Something happened that was impossible to defend.


Afterwards, I discovered that I clearly didn’t have the whole story. She had let many more responsibilities go by the wayside than I had initially thought. I had failed to see the situation clearly because I so desired to see her succeed.


I gave her way to many second chances.


The reality is that I wanted her to succeed much more than she actually wanted to succeed. I liked her, believed in her and felt invested in her future. I let my emotions get in the way of me seeing the reality. And after the whole experience passed, I realized that I had failed at being a true leader.


Yes, leaders want their people to succeed and fulfill their potential. However, true leaders understand that there is a line drawn in the sand where you acknowledge that you have given this individual enough chances to succeed and they haven’t delivered. A true leader realizes that the individual isn’t learning anything positive if they are allowed to continue subpar behavior. On top of that, the rest of the team internalizes that you condone subpar workplace performance.


That experience changed the way that I look at Real Leadership. Yes, it was my job as a leader to support and empower my employees to grow and fulfill their potential. However, it was also my responsibility to recognize when I have given an employee what they need to succeed and still do not witness the needed behavior change.



A second chance is just that- a second chance. What’s important to focus on is the numeral 2-which refers to the fact that someone has made one mistake and is given another chance to make it right. If it’s the 3rd, 4th or 5th time that you are giving someone a second chance, you need to rethink your own behavior.