One of the hardest parts of being a supervisor is learning how to lead with compassion while still imposing appropriate boundaries. Treat your employees too strictly and you risk being seen as an unyielding dictator; show too much leniency, and you may be seen as a pushover.

Thankfully, empathy is becoming widely recognized as an element that can help leaders strike this fragile balance in leadership. As managers learn that empathetic leadership can not only lift workplace morale but also boost initiative and productivity, this management style is being seen as a win/win solution for many organizations. So what are the most effective ways for managers to lead with empathy?

1. Listen actively.

 Many of the behaviors that are essential to healthy personal relationships are also key to professional ones. It may seem obvious, but the importance of actively listening to your team members without interrupting them cannot be overstated. In busy workplaces where time is at a premium and each minute of a meeting agenda is spoken for, this habit may be challenging to implement at first. Remember that an enfranchised staff is an invaluable asset. If letting everyone provide input is not possible at a given moment, make sure all team members have other opportunities to share their point of view. 

In addition to listening to what people say, pay attention to what they don’t say. Encourage quiet team members to speak up, and notice nonverbal cues. Body language can sometimes speak louder than words.

2. Be imaginative. 

As change management expert Karen Ferris puts it, “the challenge for the leader is not to think about how they would feel in someone else’s shoes but how the other person feels in their own shoes.” While leaders should still strive to think about how they would feel in others’ positions, it’s important to recognize that no two people will react to the same situation in exactly the same way because no two people have exactly the same personal characteristics or life situations. Don’t assume that your employee will have the same response that you would to being given a new level of responsibility or being transferred to a different office, for example.    

 3. Put rejections in context.

If a staff member presents an idea that won’t work for reasons of time or budget, take the time to comment on the positive aspects of the idea and then explain why you can’t implement it. No one responds well to the workplace equivalent of “because I said so.” As Forbes senior contributor Prudy Gourguechon notes, “a 90-second investment of time can prevent the employee’s feeling humiliated and disaffected in the long-term.” Explaining your point of view will also encourage your team member to receive your response with empathy in return.

4. Ask questions. 

You’re only human. Even when you practice active listening and perspective taking, you can’t be expected to intuit everything that’s going on with your team. Schedule regular meetings with individual team members to ask how they are feeling about their work and ask appropriate questions about their personal lives. Even asking something as simple as “how are you?,” especially in the COVID-19 era, can make your team members feel valued.

Be curious about the people who work for you. As Nick Petschek of Human Resource Executive suggests, rather than beginning with a mindset of “I have to ask these questions,” instead ask yourself “What might I learn by asking these questions?” By showing authentic interest in your staff’s well-being and recognizing that they may have something to teach you, you create an environment of mutual respect that empowers and inspires.