A few years ago, I respected the request of a team member to go home at the drop of a cat. Yes, you read it correctly, at the drop of a cat. A fifty-something male member of my team stood teary-eyed in front of me and asked if he could go home to comfort his son who called to say that the family’s pet cat of 13 years was dying. Realizing that my team member was too distraught to complete an important report that we were set to discuss that afternoon, I let him go home and at the same time, I said that I would reschedule our meeting for the following day. In this situation, there was a healthy dose of empathy, balanced with the commitment to get the work done.
Empathy is that trait that allows you to understand the other person’s perspective, even if you don’t necessarily agree with their point of view or emotional response to a situation. As workplaces become more team oriented, cross-functional and dependent on communications technology, leaders are challenged to balance empathy with the ability to make decisions that benefit the company’s human and financial capital.
Experience has taught me that empathy involves active listening to what is being said, how it is being said and why it is being said. Empathy requires us to get to know employees, their professional aspirations, perspectives, cultural differences and experiences that shape who they are and what they bring to the job and the team.
Armed with this understanding, I have come to realize that setting healthy emotional and professional boundaries with others strikes the right balance between empathy and the ability to make sound management decisions.
Set healthy boundaries
Healthy emotional and professional boundaries involve giving appropriate empathetic responses without compromising the commitment to deliver corporate mandates. Some guiding principles I follow are provided below:
- Never play psychologist to a distraught employee. Offer help by referrals to employee assistance programmes (EAP)
- Set limits on the frequency and time to hear complaints
- Mutually agree and commit to specific actions to resolve issues and problems in the workplace
- Accommodate professional preferences (e.g. assign special projects) without compromising on requiring the delivery of core mandates
- When making a special concession, be clear about the conditions – e.g. extra time off for personal reasons should be made up at a specific time in the future
- Be respectful about conflicting opinions, but establish the final decision and move on
- Respect employees who want to have only a professional relationship and are not interested in social interactions, as long as it does not disrupt team-building and teamwork
This post was prepared for Your Workplace and was published in YW blog posts on 5 December 2012.