Don’t forget that your people are people

April 25, 2011

As a leader it is important to guide your team towards the end result you guaranteed to your client(s). However, it is equally important to remember that the people you have working on your team are, in fact, humans, with feelings, families, lives, hobbies, and many other things that also demand their time and attention.

To put it shortly, a great word would be empathy. Empathy is not being sympathetic, in fact it is the exact opposite. Strictly relying on a dictionary definition, sympathy is where you “feel bad” for someone without really being able to relate at all to what they are going through. Empathy, however, implies that you are understanding of what’s going on and consequently, supportive.

As a leader, remember to consider that your employees have a life outside of work. You may have chosen to be a project manager because you are just crazy about the job and would work at it for free if you could. That’s fantastic, but not everyone on your team is in that same boat. So when things come up: For example, if you’re working on a project and it is running up close to holidays, pay attention to your team’s family schedule when planning the best deadlines. It doesn’t mean you cater to your team’s individual schedules all the time, but it does mean that as you are making leadership decisions, you are doing so while keeping the “life-realities” of your team in mind.

As an example, recently an employee of mine was supposed to have completed a project for me by a given deadline. That deadline came and passed by the good part of a week without the project being completed or the employee getting in touch with me. Obviously, I was concerned. So I contacted the employee and asked for essentially, a status update on the situation. The employee responded apologetically that they had neglected the project due to being selected for a grand jury during that week. Now, at this point I had the option of firing my employee on the spot for neglecting their duty, and I would have been solidly justified in this decision. However, instead, I thanked my employee for letting me know, set a new deadline for the project, and then requested that in the future they add some proactive communication about these things so that we can plan on the front end instead of missing a deadline.

By choosing to be empathetic to my employee’s situation I was able to get the project completed and maintain good relations with my people. Realistically, I handled the situation from a very business perspective that kept my business interests on the priority level. However, by choosing carefully how I responded, I was able to keep from burning any bridges in the process.

Even when choices have to be made that negatively impact your team members, if they can rely on the fact that you as a leader are doing your best to set things up in their interest, then the feedback from negative situations will be surprisingly positive. It is the care that people are after, not really the actual catering to their needs. That’s why they call it “empathy”, not sympathy. This kind of care in a leader builds loyalty among team members, and overall, a stronger team.



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