Empathy can work for you, at work. By putting yourself in the shoes of a prospective employer, your colleague or your boss, you can find more positive ways of responding to challenges. Here are three scenarios where empathy made a real difference.
The ‘difficult’ boss
Clare, a senior manager, was tearing her hair out trying to please her line manager (a female, board level executive). Clare felt her boss undermined her constantly, by challenging every detail of her plans and reports, and wanting reasons (in writing) for every decision. Clare was on the brink of looking for another job when a colleague suggested she should sit in on a board meeting to better understand her boss’s perspective. Clare quickly realised that, as the only female on the board of a male-dominated business, her boss was under constant pressure to justify her actions and account for the performance of her team. Not only did Clare stop resenting the detail she had to provide, she found new ways to present the data to help her boss look more impressive. Clare was rewarded by her boss giving her more responsibility and more opportunities to extend her skills.
The dysfunctional team
Anjeet was made head of a team which was rife with suspicion, mistrust and bad feeling. By watching the team over a period of weeks, he noticed that one project manager found increasingly subtle ways not to share important information with the rest. Anjeet used empathy to understand how this behaviour made everyone else feel.
“Understanding people’s reactions to the manager dug into his own silo helped me get the team back on track. I spelled out to everyone what I expected of them in terms of information-sharing and disciplined the manager when he didn’t toe the line.”
Anjeet was seen as a star - and later promoted - for his work with this team.
The job application
HR executive Barry thinks empathy can greatly improve someone’s chances of getting a job at his company.
“Selection is always a risk; we don’t want to make a mistake; we’re often under pressure to act quickly. You can make a much better application by understanding this. Make your CV short sharp and clear. Show you understand what we do and what the job is in your covering letter. Don’t apply for jobs for which you don’t meet the person spec.
“We’re very constrained by our own process and employment law. An interview isn’t some random conversation, after which we make a purely subjective decision based on who we like - it’s carefully structured and scored and we have to be able to relate our decision back to job and person spec to show we’ve assessed people fairly. Give us the evidence that shows you have the skills and experience we need. I marvel constantly at how people rush to tell us who they are, what they want, what their ambitions are, and what they’re good at without backing it up with evidence.”
So how to respond with empathy?
· Read the job spec - only apply if you tick every box marked ‘essential’
· Find out everything you can about the company, the department, what they’re looking for and the selection process (through formal and informal channels)
· Base your application and prepare your interview answers on the job spec
· Match your strengths to what they say they need
· Try to work out the marking system for the interview - and prepare for it
· Don’t take rejection personally but do ask for feedback
Use empathy at work. Whatever kind of work you do, using empathy will make you better at it.