Empathy Is Not a "Nice to Have"

I have had a lot of managers in my 20 years as a software engineer. There are some I look back on with complete adoration. I would follow them anywhere and gladly work through the night on a critical project if they asked me to. Then there are others that I would rather quit than work for. I've worked for brilliant jerks and lovable idiots. Sometimes you put up with the brilliant jerks for awhile because although they're a pain to work with, they get results. Sometimes you put up with the lovable idiots for awhile because although they don't really get results, at least they're not brilliant jerks.

Close to seven years ago, I was thrown into a management role with no training and no real idea what I was doing. My manager at the time had stepped aside because he realized that he simply wasn't good at it. He was a brilliant engineer, but not a good leader. He couldn't read people very well, so frustrations in the office often got out of control before he even noticed that there was a problem. I'm not exactly sure why, but I was asked to step into his role. My thought at the time was "well, I can't do worse", so I gave it a try.

As I was trying to figure out what the heck I was doing, I thought back on the managers I loved and the ones I hated. I realized that every manager I respected had one thing in common: empathy. More than just empathy though, I felt that they truly cared about my well-being and career growth.

Empathy is the action of understanding, being aware of, being sensitive to, and vicariously experiencing the feelings, thoughts, and experience of another of either the past or present without having the feelings, thoughts, and experience fully communicated in an objectively explicit manner - Merriam-Webster Dictionary

The best managers remembered what it was like to be an individual contributor, and the worst managers did the opposite. As I continued in my career as a manager, this is the skill that helped set me apart as a manager. At Amazon, where teams are highly competitive and you can freely transfer from one manager to another, I had people that would follow me as I moved around the company. Was this because I was a "nice guy" or a pushover? I don't think so. I often had difficult and uncomfortable conversations with the people that reported to me. I had to fire people on several occassions -- one just weeks before Christmas -- but they still wanted to follow me wherever I went. The guy I had to fire just before Christmas (after so many warnings and chances to turn his performance around) actually thanked me for the way I treated him.

The secret, it turns out, was easy: Never forget what it is like to be in their shoes. Empathy is not a "nice to have" for managers. It is a "must have". On nights where I had to ask someone to stay late in order to launch something on time, I stayed with them. I knew, because I sincerely cared, that they had a family with young kids at home. I acknowledged that and helped them understand why this was absolutely necessary and they steps we would take to make sure it didn't happen again.

Being empathetic doesn't mean just being nice. It means seeing the world through their eyes, which can be very hard to do. Everyone has different experiences, backgrounds, and views of the world, so looking at something they way you would, isn't necessarily the right way to see things. The only way to be truly empathetic with the people you work with is to truly get to know them as individuals. And I don't mean memorizing their cats' names. I mean understanding their goals, fears, and frustrations. This can only be done through a relationship of real trust. People have to know that you truly have their backs.

How do you build trust in order to demonstrate empathy?

Building trust boils down to two things: 1) keeping your promises, and 2) being sincere. Being sincere doesn't mean being a pushover. You can be frustrated with someone and still be sincere as you discuss it with them without beating around the bush. So long as they feel that discussing your frustration is meant to find a solution (and not just beat them down), it will feel sincere.

Keeping (or not keeping) your promises are both the #1 trust-builder and #1 trust-buster. The best way to start is with small, easily-kept promises. In a one-on-one with your direct report, if you mention that you will send them a link to that wiki article that explains how to update their tax withholdings, you need to do it immediately after your one-on-one is over. Not after your next few meetings... right now. As you get to know each other, your promises will mean more and become even more crucial to keep. If you make a promise that you later realize you can't keep, be honest and upfront about it as soon as you realize it, and then explain what you're going to do to either make it right or prevent it from happening again. A broken promise is a punch to the gut when it comes to a manager/employee relationship.

Empathy is not enough - You must also practice Radical Candor

The best managers I had -- the ones I would follow anywhere -- actually had two common traits: caring deeply (showing empathy), and challenging directly. I had an "a ha!" moment about this crucial set of attributes in a manager after watching Kim Scott's talk on Radical Candor (YouTube). Radical Candor happens when you combine caring personally for someone (including and especially being empathetic) and challenging directly. Just "caring deeply" about someone without ever challenging them is what Kim calls "Ruinous Empathy", and she's 100% correct.

So if you find yourself in a management position, think about what it really means to be empathetic. Don't do it because you want results. Do it because it's the right thing to do and, if practiced along with Radical Candor, you'll get results that are good for both of you.

Don't treat empathy as a "nice to have" when things get tough. That's when you should double-down and be more empathetic than ever. Be the boss you wish you had when you were in their shoes.

Written By
Bryan Hales

👋 Hi, I'm Bryan and the founder of Minimal. You might know me as @PocketBryan on Twitter.

In July 2021, I quit my dream job at Amazon to pursue my life-long goal of running my own successful software company. Minimal is what I am devoting my every-waking-moment to, so I hope you enjoy it and let me know what I can improve to make it better for you!