The best leaders are perceptive, straightforward, and empathetic. Rather than dictating orders, they provide thoughtful support and take the time to listen whenever their employees approach with ideas and concerns. Their ability to process the nuances of an employee's perspective is an invaluable skill that encourages clear communication and ultimately improves the health of a business.
Too often, however, well-meaning leaders fall into baseless, damaging platitudes. You've probably heard -- or even used! -- a few such phrases.
"I can relate."
"I completely understand where you're coming from."
"I've been there, believe me."
All three of these reassurances seem benign enough at first listen. They strive to connect managers and employees through shared experience and attempt to reassure the employee that they are seen and understood.
But here's the problem -- every one of those seemingly empathetic statements shuts down conversations faster than outright dismissal.
In a recent article for the Harvard Business Review, management researcher Kathryn Heath outlined the damage that baseless sympathy can do, noting that relating to a subordinate's experience can become a dangerous "trap."
"Though well-intentioned," Heath writes, "such remarks can be offensive to the other party. Our research shows that many managers often miss the mark entirely."
In her article, Heath outlines a hypothetical situation in which a white male manager in his fifties tells a young, female Hispanic employee who feels ostracized by her white male colleagues that he understands what she's going through -- even though their differing life experiences make such a statement improbable.
"In your effort to relate, it is possible (and likely) to make false assumptions and tread into areas you know nothing about," Heath cautions. "Remember, empathy is learning to understand what someone is feeling despite having never felt it before. It is not making up a story in your head about what you think the other person is going through based on your personal experience."
In offering baseless reassurance, managers simultaneously shut down any further explanation by implying that they don't care to hear more about the employee's individual experience. In turn, the employee feels more ostracized, hurt, and unwilling to come forward with concerns in the future. Ironically, leaders tend to leave such discussions thinking themselves supportive and kind -- never realizing that their sympathy only exacerbated existing frustrations.
This issue is particularly problematic for mid-level or high-ranking women, who tend to have male supervisors. According to statistics compiled by the Center for American Progress, American women "lag substantially behind men in terms of their representation in leadership positions" despite the fact that they hold nearly 52 percent of all management and professional-level jobs.
Take gender representation in the financial services sector as an example. While women in the industry make up 61 percent of accountants, 53 percent of financial managers, and 37 percent of analysts, only 12.5 percent of Fortune-500 CFOs are female. The unbalanced gender distribution within the highest leadership levels means that women are more likely to have male managers who don't have a clear understanding of their professional experiences, perspectives, and challenges -- and feel shut down by misguided sympathy.
When employees are rebuffed in well-meaning conversations, they may feel alienated and unable to connect with their team. This lack of inclusion effectively nullifies the benefits that the organization might have otherwise gained from its diversity, leading to productivity and performance losses.
If organizations want to make the most of their diverse teams, they should proactively strive to teach managers how to deploy empathy as a tool for encouraging discussion, rather than shutting down complaints.
All company leaders should be trained in active listening. This instruction will empower managers to set aside their assumptions, formulate their responses according to their employees' verbal and nonverbal cues, and acknowledge team members' feelings without shutting down their concerns. Only once they achieve these skills can a manager achieve their leadership potential and guide their team with a deft, empathetic hand.
So, the next time that you feel tempted to sympathize -- pause. Consider whether you can genuinely understand your employee's perspective, or if your need to relate is a reflexive way for you to prevent an awkward conversation. You may just find that taking the time to truly understand your team's diverse perspectives makes you a better leader.