by Morey Stettner
A reporter recently asked me to name the most important character trait that an effective manager needs. "Empathy," I replied without skipping a beat.
If you're going to supervise people, you must understand them. That's obvious. But what's not so obvious is how deeply you must see the world through their eyes.
Empathetic managers train themselves to adopt others' perspectives. Before they seek compliance, begin disciplinary proceedings or explain a complex procedure to an employee, they consider that individual's unique point of view.
Empathy isn't just vital for managers. It's also the key to delivering successful customer service.
Consider how a nursing home in Columbus, Ohio, trains its staff. Social workers and aides aren't simply asked to empathize with customers (who in this case are seniors who reside in the facility); they are forced to empathize.
In an innovative, three-hour training program described in The New York Times, employees wear distorting glasses that blur their vision, don latex gloves with adhesive bands around their knuckles, sprinkle corn kernels in their shoes and stuff cotton balls in their ears and nose.
They are then asked to perform the type of tasks that fill an elderly person's day: buttoning a shirt, dialing a phone, lifting and pouring a pitcher of water.
Because they can't see as clearly, lack manual dexterity, experience achy feet and can't hear or smell as well, even simple activities become a struggle for the trainees. They cannot help but appreciate the daily difficulties of aging.
Sure, it's an extreme example. But it drills home the point that your success as a manager rests on your ability to shift perspectives. By connecting with your staff, speaking their language and framing your explanations and requests in a manner that fits their preferred, you build trust and rapport.
Want hard-hitting feedback from your boss, peers and employees? Then pose the right question. Instead of asking, "Can you tell me how I'm doing?," narrow your focus by saying, "I would appreciate your input to help me improve." This signals that you crave constructive criticism—and you will respond with openness and gratitude. It may seem like a subtle difference, but you'll learn so much more.