Empathy and vulnerability, the keys to inclusive leadership

Inclusive leadership is about knowing when to speak vs. listen

One of the clear hallmarks of inclusive leadership is knowing when someone truly needs direction versus when they need a sounding board. These two leadership strategies look very different in practice. For someone that really needs direction, the best approach might be to speak more than listen, teach, mentor, and advise. When someone needs a sounding board, however, it’s much more about listening and speaking, providing room for them to self discover their path forward, and helping them solve their own problems rather than imparting your own advice.

Consider these questions to know when to ask vs. when to tell…

  • Has the person demonstrated that they can do this task well? 
  • Do they have transferable skills (meaning that they have done something similar to this task or project well before)? 
  • Do they smile when doing this task? 
  • Do they have the confidence to do this task?
  • Are they motivated to do this task?

If you have mostly yeses to these questions, listening and asking is best. If the person hasn’t demonstrated the necessary skills and wills for the task, speaking and teaching is best. 

Inclusive leaders know there is a big difference between these approaches, and shift their style to meet people where they are versus imparting their style on others.

Practice Vulnerability

Brene Brown, the thought leader on vulnerability, describes vulnerability as “uncertainty, risk, and emotional exposure.” For me, it is about letting go of control, not knowing what the outcome will be, and leaning into the discomfort nonetheless.

Vulnerability is often at odds with how we define leadership. Traditional leadership is soaked in stoicism, being the expert, and having all the answers. Inclusive leadership is a shift from that outdated and unhelpful model. It’s more about putting yourself out there and being a full human at work.  

Vulnerability draws people to you like magnets. 

Think about the people in your life you choose to spend time with, that you want to follow, that you want to be more like. Brainstorm the top five attributes of those people. I will guarantee you trust, honesty, respect, listening, and authenticity will come through on that list. All of those things are the heartbeat of vulnerability. 

The benefits of being a vulnerable leader include improving trust with others, being able to talk about hard things, solve hard problems as a team, and fostering more genuine connections with human beings. This is perhaps the biggest competitive advantage a team could have. Vulnerability based leadership creates space for everyone to feel like they can be their full selves at work. This belonging factor leads to a low likelihood of your top talent seeking new opportunities and a high likelihood people will put more effort into their work.

Be Empathetic Not Sympathetic

Well-intentioned leaders often confuse empathy with sympathy. Sympathy is treating people like they are less than you when they go through hard things. Empathy is trying on the perspective of someone else when they go through hard things. An important and nuanced shift. 

Empathy looks like “I’m so sorry this happened to you,” “I have no idea what you are going through,” or “what kind of support would be most helpful?” Sympathy is more like “bless your heart.” “I feel sorry for you,” “oh my gosh that happened to me too,” or “how can I help?”

The challenge with the latter more sympathetic comments and questions is you’re putting the onus of the pain on the person in pain. Empathy is shifting the pain from the person and sharing in their pain, even though it’s impossible to know what it is like to be someone else.  It’s not about putting on someone’s shoes. You can’t do that unless they wear the exact same shoes you do, which is rare. 

It’s more about taking on the lens of someone else’s viewpoint and really trying to understand it from their viewpoint without applying your own judgment. It’s a harder practice than realized because we see the world through the lens of our own experiences and assumptions. Empathy requires us to suspend our own thinking and replace it with a new narrative. Inclusive leaders know this is what builds trust and connection with people.

Seek Others’ Perspectives

Inclusive leadership is a practice. There are good days and bad days. Mistakes are part of the learning Journey as an ally. Be open to trying some of these behaviors if you want to boost inclusion on your team:

  • Powerful Questions. Open-ended questions that start with “what” or “how” are key to getting people to think for themselves.  Consider the simple question – “what do you want?” – so powerful.
  • Active Listening. Be quiet and listen.  Pause for seven seconds after the question and you will be surprised what you hear.  Resist the urge to jump in with answers, park your assumptions, and be curious to learn from the team.  Playback what you heard them say using their exact words verbatim.  They will open up and tell you more.
  • Self-Discovery. Promote this relentlessly.  People create barriers in their minds when they do not know what to do, or are so overwhelmed that they see no path to success.  They accept the current reality believing it is the best they can do.  Do not let them.  Challenge them to come up with their own solutions, encouraging them with, “I know your idea is better than mine,” and “what if you did know?”

Vulnerability and empathy are powerful allyship tools.  Stay on the diversity and inclusion journey as allies. You will get more from your team and you will be happier leading them.

If you liked this article, share it with a friend, check out our Diversity Pivot Podcast for entertaining stories about inclusive leadership, or schedule time with Julie if you are interested in bringing this content to your organization.  We also have a brand new virtual self-paced Lead Like an Ally course to check out!

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