The Power of Empathy

Coming together is a beginning. Keeping together is progress. Working together is success.
— Henry Ford

If I were to add to that famous quote, this is how it would look:

Working together in time of a crisis is growth.

We have all been in a situation or are most likely to be in a situation, where the team goes through a crisis. At that point of time, our wish, hope and efforts are towards ensuring that the crisis be resolved as soon as possible. However, crisis situations present a lot of wonderful opportunities to the team. And one of the biggest opportunities is team building.

This story goes way back to the 90s. I was working as a lead developer in a project where we were improving some critical components of a software for our client, a major asset management company. This software was needed by them to process dividends for some of their mutual funds. Due to various technical difficulties that we were facing, we missed the deadline and got delayed by a week. The dividend processing time was approaching and the client was really worried – and rightfully so.

One evening we were trying to figure out a solution but were getting constantly interrupted by phone calls from the client. Being anxious, they were trying to get a status update almost every hour. As anyone can guess, none of these calls were particularly motivating to the team that was already struggling.

There was another customer who was visiting us on that day. My manager was busy with them and did not have much time for us till evening. He came to me around seven in the evening and asked me what the status was and what kind of help I needed from him. I updated him and told him that the frequent calls we were getting was a major source of distraction for us. He said, "you guys work on the solution and I will handle the calls". He got my phone forwarded to his number and started attending the calls. For the next three hours, he did not let any call come to us, neither did he come back and ask us about the status.

At around 10 , he came back to evaluate the status of the work and told us to go home for the night and insisted on it. He said we looked tired and the technical issue was not something that would be able to get resolved in next one hour or so. The next day, he was with us from the morning, isolating us from all outside distractions till around 8 pm, when we finally nailed the technical solution.

This simple incident had several key takeaways for me, which helped me shape my leadership skills in future. The key behaviours that my manager showed on that day brought me closer towards understanding the importance of empathy as a leader:

  • He did not add to the pressure which we already had. He simply tried to understand our position and offered help. We knew what to do, all we needed was distraction-free time. His attitude and behavior built huge amounts of trust and respect for him. A manager always needs to have the capability to understand the situation and demonstrate right behaviour suitable for the situation.
  • He showed trust in us. He did not rigorously monitor us on everything we were doing. As a manager knowing when to involve himself at the moment of crisis was the key. A manager is expected to operate with the right level of supervision, not at the extremes of micro-management or hands-off. It depends on the team’s maturity and the particular situation they are in.
  • He showed empathy. He was in as much pressure as we were in but he remained calm. He made us go home when he realized that we were tired. The empathy that he had for the team was a huge boost for the team morale at the time of crisis. When we returned the next morning we were fresh and recharged and ready to tackle the problem once again.

A time of crisis is always a testing time for the leader of the team. How a team behaves in the long run depends a lot on how the leader of the team behaved at the time of crisis. In the long run this team imitated the behaviour of the manager and became a high-performing team. In this the members trusted and helped each other, got involved in problem solving rather than pointing fingers.

I have seen many managers who think adding pressure to the team will always improve their performance; while that may work in certain situations, that can never be the rule for all situations. 

What this manager displayed was empathy and the fruits of it are trust, confidence and high-performance - things that every organization strive to bring into its culture.