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Leading with Empathy– Why Understanding Emotions Makes You A Better Leader

Updated: May 11, 2021

When I talk to police officers one of the things that I like to remind them is that each of them is a leader, regardless of rank. When you arrive on the scene of a chaotic situation, people look to you to be that calm commanding presence that will take control and bring order to the chaos. Whether you’re starting your first day, or you’re a seasoned vet, you are a leader in your community. Learning how to be the most effective leader possible should be one of your highest priorities.

In 2004, I was promoted to sergeant. There was no official orientation program for new supervisors. I was given some stripes and expected to know what to do. I was very fortunate when I arrived on my new shift with those stripes freshly added to my uniform. I was assigned to a lieutenant who sat me down, gave me his expectations, and explained that I would now be doing everything. Everything? I asked a little concerned, Yes, everything. While that initially overwhelmed me, I quickly realized that by doing everything, I would be forced to learn quickly, and it prepared me when my lieutenant was promoted, and that shift became my responsibility.

Since 2004, I have tried my best to be the best supervisor I could be. Juggling the needs of my officers with the needs of my agency has not always been easy. As a new supervisor I was very strict and demanding of my team. I worked hard to push them to live up to my high expectations and standards. Some appreciated that and others did not. There is a lot that I would change, particularly that I now know about leading with empathy. Empathy is often mistaken for sympathy, but they are quite different.

What does it mean to lead with empathy? I think it means having the ability to understand another person’s emotions and using that understanding to guide your decisions as a leader. “But I am in charge and it doesn’t matter how my decisions make my employees feel!” WRONG! Your employees have the ability to make or break you as a leader. Sure, you can lead through threats and a commanding presence. But that only works for a brief time, and it doesn’t work as well as using empathy while leading.

I believe that we should always consider how a decision we make will affect our team. There will be times where your decisions will be unpopular. If you know this in advance, and actually care how they will affect your team, you can tailor your message appropriately. We are often tasked with implementing policies or making decisions that will be difficult for our team. But actually, caring how those decisions and policies affect them, that is what separates a good and bad leader.

One way you can practice leading with empathy is to remember where you came from. It is easy to forget what it is like in the trenches if you never go back to them. As leaders we must occasionally leave our office and get our hands dirty. Before making a decision that will affect others, we should think about our younger self and how the decision would have affected us back then. Another way we can lead with empathy is by explaining the why, when we can, behind the decisions we make. This is not always possible, but it goes a long way. Particularly when we know it will be unpopular. People want to understand why decisions are made and be heard about how it affects them.

Another way to improve leading with empathy is by improving your emotional intelligence (EI). Unlike IQ, EI can be improved through training and practice. At Juliet Lima Solutions we introduce law enforcement, government agencies, and private industry to the concept of emotional intelligence. We use academic research, combined with police negotiation skills to improve job satisfaction, productivity, and retention. If you are interested in learning more about our unique style of leadership and de-escalation training, contact us today.

Lyons Hale

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