Empathy as a Catalyst for Performance

“I’m done, I can’t do this anymore.”

It was the first time I had ever said those words to myself, and it scared me. I was sitting alone on the balcony of the Taipei International Convention Center on a lunch break. It was the first day of a 4 day expo. I had spent months preparing our company to attend as an exhibitor. Our attendance at this event was meant to be the capstone to a grand (and expensive) marketing plan. I was also less than 18 months into an international assignment, living in corporate-provided housing with my wife and a 20-month old daughter. For me, my entire existence depended on me keeping my job! But at that moment, all I wanted was to get as far away from my job as possible. And the weight of this pressure was one of the heaviest I had ever experienced.

Earlier that day, I had been publicly berated by the senior most executive for our company in Taiwan. Out in the open on the expo floor. In front of both everyone in the office and important customers. And worse, everything he said in his tirade was right. Though I had followed corporate branding and design guidelines to a tee as well as stayed within budget, the booth was confusing to local customers and was frankly embarrassing when compared with our competition. Potentially the worst part is that it was not the first verbal beat-down I received in public from that manager, nor was it the last. But it may have been the one that hurt the most. 

This grainy picture was stealthily taken by my colleague who thought it would be funny to immortalize one of the worst moments of my career. I’ll admit, 15 years later, I did get a good chuckle looking at. At the time? Not so much…

After taking a longer than usual lunch break that day, I was able to pull myself together long enough to carry-on. But I was a broken individual after that experience for months. I had consistently been rated an “A Player” on my performance ratings, I was top of my class and was used to winning. Afterwards, my confidence was shot, my ambition was dulled and I started doubting whether I really had what it takes to be successful. 

Oh sure, life went on, the sun came up, and everything was “fine,” but I was not living up to my potential. I wish I could say I was internally strong enough to pull myself out of my mental and emotional pit and return to high performance. 

Flash forward a few years and I found myself working for a manager that understood that the key to driving high results is not focusing on the results, or processes, or products, or systems, or tools, or rewards, or any other number of necessary components. He understood that it all came down to the people behind those components. It was his actions that enabled me to live up to my potential and return to high performance.

We worked in a high stress, what-have-you-done-for-me-lately and show-me-the-money type of environment. In spite of this, he took the time to connect with everyone on the team personally. He made sure we all felt valued, supported and trusted. He listened when we needed to talk, he recognized that just like most adults, we wanted to do a great job. And when the results weren’t always “great”, it was a development opportunity, not a punishable offence. In short, he was empathetic. He understood we were all human, and he let us know he was human too. He knew what it was like to be under pressure, to have deadlines looming, to have more on your plate than you can handle, and to fail. He let us know it’s OK to feel those things. So how specifically did this leader show empathy?. Let’s break it down:

1. He took the time to regularly meet with us one on one

Even as the team grew. And even as schedules filled up, he always prioritized these one on one meetings with his team. 

2. He genuinely cared what was going on in my world

Yes, a lot of these discussions focused on deliverables, or deadlines, or questions about work. But they always started with discussions about the family and how I was doing as an individual. And they were always led by me. Some days I really needed work answers so all we did was talk about work. Other days I needed to get some things off my chest. Fine, but it was up to me, the employee, to decide what was discussed. 

3. He didn’t pretend to have all the answers, but he listened

I never needed anything other than a listening ear at the time, but there were resources available he could have referred me to had I needed more. He didn’t pretend to be a therapist, or a counsellor. , He was comfortable with what he was: a leader who cared and could listen. 

4. He was real

To an appropriate extent he shared about himself, his family, and what was on his mind. He never crossed the line into the “too authentic” or “too transparent” realm. He simply was himself and brought a humanness to his role. 

As a result of his actions and leadership, real business results followed. We won awards as a department, multiple people in our department were promoted, our budgets and headcount grew, and this leader eventually rose to be the CHRO for the company.

Here we are the Sunday after I left my job with him and the day before I started a bigger job with a more prestigious company. He was so excited for me he invited all of us over to his house to celebrate with a pool party.

Contrast my experience with this leader and that of my experience with the leader from my first story. Management on that team was a revolving door, product launches failed, costs overran, and we consistently missed targets. It was the same parent company, products, processes, and tools, the only difference was leadership. And specifically, the empathy, or lack thereof of the leader in charge. While I’ve read countless articles and books about the importance of empathy as a leadership skill, as I’m sure we all have, it’s these two contrasting examples that really drove the point home for me. Empathy, the art of being understanding of the feelings and experiences of others, is the skill that separates leaders from managers. And it’s leadership that unlocks and ignites human potential and performance.