Tricia Ewald
Managing Partner
ICF Next

I was raised in a home, and in a community, where the Golden Rule was important. Those good fundamentals helped set my personal values. Later in my career, as I tried to discern the connection between the people I admired in the workplace, I realized that it came down to empathy.  My personal values and my work values felt the same and empathy was the red thread connecting the personal and the professional.

Empathy in leadership and business is a balance between compassion and objectivity.  We need people to follow our lead, and in order to do that, we need to understand them and what they are going through.  At the same time, we need to balance that with the objectives of our business and our teams. Striking the right balance between the two is key — Don’t overdo it on the compassion side and don’t overdo it on the business objectivity side.

Empathy and Leadership

Empathy is the primary way for leaders to connect with people; both within the agency, and also with clients, or people in general.  Empathy has been studied and poked and prodded a great deal, so of course, a counter-argument has surfaced about whether there is too much empathy in the workplace. I lean heavily to the side that says there is not enough, that we always need more.  Without people to lead nothing gets done, and if leadership is dependent on connecting with people, and empathy is the best way to achieve that, then I would argue, we need more empathy, not less.

Empathy Inside the Agency

Just as connecting with people is a key trait for leaders, it is also important within the team.  What empathy may look like can change, for example, with scale.  Empathy in a 20-person team may be very specific and customized at the individual level.  This may not be possible in a 200 or 2000-person team, but that doesn’t mean that the agency can’t be acting and demonstrating empathy even at that size.

Agency leaders also have an opportunity to demonstrate and model empathy for our clients.  Social good and CSR are certainly talked about a lot today and are obviously important for both clients and at the agency level.  Empathy in the form of things like CSR used to be something we might have felt obligated to do, but today community engagement and social good are important to a much broader audience.  Empathy is action-based.

I am lucky to be surrounded by colleagues whose ability to connect with people is something I am constantly in awe of.  We push each other as leaders every day to try to be better.  It’s important to be surrounded by people who will pick you up when you need it. Leaders have bad days too, days when they are humbled by the decisions they make, and to be surrounded by people who are great at connecting is important.

Evaluating Empathy in Candidates

One of the best ways to get a feel for candidates’ level of empathy may be to ask questions not about them, and what they’ve done, but about their team. How well do they know their team?  Can the candidate speak with some specificity about what motivates members of the team, what their goals and ambitions are?

You can bring this approach when you are being interviewed. Ask the same questions of your prospective manager or boss — What motivates his teammates? Who are they as people? Understanding how well the prospective manager knows her team will tell you a lot about her level of empathy and connection to the people who work for her.

To hear more, listen to Tricia Ewald’s episode on the Agencies of the Future podcast.