Tuesday, August 23, 2011

Why Is Empathy So Important Anyway?

I used to joke when I was a teenager that I had a file cabinet in my brain and whenever someone – a teacher, a parent or another adult – said or did something that I liked or didn’t like, I would “file it away” in my head for later.

In high school, I had a teacher named Mr. Cannon. He was my English teacher in 10th grade, and then I was lucky enough to have him for three other classes over the course of my high school career.

I really liked Mr. Cannon’s style. He never treated us like we were less than him. He always listened to us when we were struggling with our crazy teenager problems. He was really smart and knew what he was talking about and if he didn’t know the answer to something, he’d always admit it and go figure it out. He wasn’t an easy teacher – his classes were really challenging and I credit him with my enduring love of literature because of how he made it come alive for me. He was great at what he did. And he took the time, everyday, to be better at it by listening to his students and encouraging them to be successful.

Needless to say, I filed a lot of Mr. Cannon’s influence in my “good” file cabinet and I think I’m a better person for it. Not just because I learned a lot about literature and grammar and vocabulary either (although, I do have to thank him for paving the way for many, many Scrabble victories!), but because I learned a lot about being a person, and more specifically, a leader, because of his example.

Mr. Cannon is an empathetic leader. He cares for his students. He cares not just about what they know and how well they do on their tests. He cares for them as real people, and truly desires to help them become better people. He listens to them, learns who they are, and understands them, so that he can teach them in the way they learn best.

Because Mr. Cannon cared about me, I cared more about his class. I worked harder for him than I did for any of my other teachers. And even during my “skipping school phase”* my senior year, I always tried to ensure I was back in time for his class.

*Side note: having an empathetic teacher isn’t always fun and games. During said “skipping school phase,” Mr. Cannon’s concern over my repeated absences prompted him to call my mother to ensure I was all right… and of course, alerted my mother to my shenanigans. Even though he ratted me out, I couldn’t even get mad at him. He was really that great of a teacher.

My point in telling you my crazy high school story is that empathy DOES have a place in the workplace. And not just with students. Leaders who are empathetic get to know their employees and understand them. They keep the needs of those employees in mind as they make decisions. Employees who work for empathetic leaders trust that those leaders know them and feel comfortable sharing concerns with their boss. Feeling valued, they tend to work harder and have more passion.

It doesn’t take much time to get to know your employees, beyond what they do for you each day in the office. The time it takes to walk a moment in their shoes and really understand their perspective can make a tremendous difference in your workplace atmosphere – and result in happy, productive and passionate employees.

I’m willing to bet there are a lot more “mes” out there – former students of Mr. Cannon who were somehow inspired by him. I challenge each of you reading today to be more like Mr. Cannon. Take the time to learn about your co-workers. Be a mentor to those who work for you. Inspire those around you to be the best they can be.

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