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How to build empathy among leaders and within teams

How to develop better understanding at work and empathise with coworkers? Start with this: When you feel someone or something is pushing your buttons, delay your reaction.

October 12, 2021 / 09:07 AM IST
(Representative image) Negative associations with a person or task at the office can prevent even talented employees from achieving their potential. Coaching and empathy exercises may help to understand and break such associations.

(Representative image) Negative associations with a person or task at the office can prevent even talented employees from achieving their potential. Coaching and empathy exercises may help to understand and break such associations.

Empathy is one of those words that gets tossed around in seminars and meetings on office culture. As line managers and human resources personnel struggled to improve work-from-anywhere for the better part of the last two years, building empathy cropped up again and again in discussions as a vague concept to defuse tensions and promote teamwork.

But what is empathy? How is it useful when you have an office deadline approaching, and things aren't going so well? How do you build it within and across teams?

We spoke to life coaches and HR managers for actionable tips:

What is empathy?

Let's start with what empathy is not: it is not about giving advice to others, and it is not about being “sympathetic”. (Sympathy denotes feeling sorry for someone, and it can be a condescending emotion or a charitable gesture.)


Savita Mathai, group head of HR at advertising agency FCB Ulka India, says that empathy is simply about being able to “see things from someone else’s lens and respond accordingly”.

Of course empathy is anything but simple. What we see or don't see in ourselves also impacts what we see or we don't see in others. Perception is always relative, can never exist in isolation. European psychoanalyst Melanie Klein explained this kind of a psychological relativity as emotional projection in a relationship in her book Love, Hate, and Reparation (co-authored with Joan Riviere in the late 1930s).

The empathetic go-getter

Life coach Neha Gupta says we tend to slot leaders into one of two moulds: One, task-focused leaders who are “go-getters”, and two, those who are passive networkers, building relationships but lacking a goal-oriented approach and usually unable to meet targets and deadlines.

Over the years, she has found that many of the leaders she was coaching themselves needed to understand how they were biased towards one of the two approaches.

“A leader has to be both task- and people-focused... It has to be both,” says Gupta. “It’s about walking on a tight rope and creating a balance. Sometimes you give in a little more to one, and at the other times you give in a little more to the other, but the idea is to know your people and see how you can balance and manage this trade-off for the larger objective, including for the well-being of your people.”

While leaders who are overly task-focused may discover how everybody is not like them when it comes to working habits, work cultures that are entirely relationship-focused risk becoming nepotistic and non-inclusive because their leaders are unable to be objective about work-related goals.

These two behaviours are two sides of the same coin and thus lead to the same ineffectiveness and lack of achievement in the long run.

Empathy-building exercises

Coaches and therapists use various techniques to help develop understanding and empathy in leaders and team members in the workplace. These include individual and group sessions and meditation to enhance mindfulness.

“If someone’s hot buttons are pressed,” says life coach Neha Gupta, “it is very difficult for them to be empathetic towards another person at that time.”

If, for instance, someone is very particular about deadlines, then they may fail to accept or understand difficulties or requests for extension when a deadline is fast approaching.

A possible solution, Gupta suggests is that “when the person becomes aware that their hot button is being pressed, then it may be possible for them to practice mindfulness or delay their reactions in the moment.” Gupta says that such self-reflective exercises help people become aware of themselves, which in turn help them develop empathy as they try to understand someone else.

Gupta also uses techniques in roleplay. Here's how it goes: the person imagines they are in a conversation with another person. The coach guides them on where they are going right or where they could improve.

She also uses exercises in what is known as guided visualisation, where a person is able to navigate visual symbols and metaphors to understand and change their perception.

Deactivating the hot buttons

“In every organisation, there are underperformers that the company has hopes for, but those who are unable to deliver as effectively as they were expected to,” says Nitin Shah, founder of the Institute of Clinical Hypnosis and Related Sciences. “We check what is stopping them,” he adds.

Shah says that these people-with-potential may have an emotional association with certain situations. For instance, encountering their boss whom they may not like or get along with. “They may get angry every time they see their boss’s [face], for instance. After that, they may find that their meeting has gone for a toss because they were carrying that anger with them,” says Shah.

“In hypnosis, there is a technique called association-building,” says Shah. This technique, he explains, is based on neurolinguistic programming, where they recondition the emotional association by attempting to change the way the person views something.

Coach Neha Gupta calls this understanding where and what one’s “hot buttons” are all about.

“We check whether there are any deeper associations which have become almost like conditions or reflections in a person,” says Shah. “Then we start looking at the client’s deeper beliefs, and finally, we go into their past experiences. The first three layers—thoughts, feelings, and beliefs—are addressed in our training programmes,” explains Shah.

Breaking past negative emotional associations, too, can help develop self-awareness and empathy, and achieve goals effectively.
Supriya Thanawala is a freelance journalist.
first published: Oct 10, 2021 10:52 am

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