Listening and Leading With Empathy

· by Herb Dew

Herb is the CEO of HTI. He founded HTI in 1999 along with John Knight and David Sewell, and remains heavily involved in the organization today.
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Since COVID hit back in March, the following months seemed to hold an increasingly intense amount of challenges. All coming from different directions.

Labor instability. Political unrest. Negative news. An uncertain economic future. Personal health challenges. Boredom. Fear. Etc.

Early on, as the pandemic unfolded, decisive action and clear communication to employees was perhaps the most important quality that leaders, local and national, needed to exhibit. Leaders were managing day to day. It felt impossible to see even a week ahead. Full on crisis management. Although important, listening was less important than decisiveness. Action and honest, clear communication was critical at that time.

But then we began to see a sustained tension.

The George Floyd incident. Competing views of the pandemic strategy. Intense, often negative political discourse. Nagging boredom.

Leaders (those paying attention) had to quickly move from crisis management to being aware of the morale of their organization. Suddenly all the anger, fear, and negativity was spilling out into the job market. Attendance issues were at an all time high. Turnover, although unemployment was high, spiked.

As leaders we had to shift gears and listen to the people we lead. We do not have to always agree, but should “listen with intent.”

What do I mean by “listen with intent?” Listening with intent is listening to people in such a way that they feel heard. Listening with empathy. Because the confusion, anger, tension, uncertainty that we feel as leaders….all of our people are living that too. And we have the opportunity NOW in this time to let them know we hear them.

Listening does not always mean embracing someone else’s truth. But “listening with intent” does mean there is an opportunity to build a relationship and gain an understanding of where THAT person is at. And how you might be able to help them.

In an industry in which we have multiple customers, and many employees working at different sites, I have had to really challenge myself to listen with intent. Even at times when I don’t really want to. I suspect listening is a skill we all need to work on. And I wonder if a lot of these current HOT issues we are facing as a country wouldn’t be just a little bit better if we all were listening with the intent to understand one another.