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The Critical Character Attribute of Empathy

 

 

 
 
   
   
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My1 first rater didn’t have it. Nor did my senior rater. Fortunately for me, one of my rater’s counterparts (MAJ L) did, and his empathic support made all the difference in my transition into the Judge Advocate General’s (JAG) Corps. The ability of MAJ L back at division headquarters to connect with me, two hours away, in a small, remote branch office, and provide the informal empathic leadership our small team needed was invaluable.

The reality was that my rater—the Officer in Charge (OIC) of our small office—was in a miserable place in his life. And by default or design, he was taking it out on all of us. Every single day, while simultaneously failing to set the example, let alone any example, in everything from basic client support and fundamental staff work to any semblance of physical training, the team was suffering. The command’s leadership noticed, and our office was collectively being penalized as a result. The Staff Judge Advocate (SJA) either didn’t know or didn’t care—neither was excusable.

Major L was my OIC’s graduate course classmate. He was assigned to the division headquarters and knew the background. I turned to him for help. Rather than simply saying, “Well, that stinks,” and feeling sorry for me, he made the critical leap from mere sympathy to empathy that marks an effective leader. That deeper understanding enabled MAJ L to not only help me personally survive, but also help the team excel. By understanding the underlying causes of frustration, he was able to intervene where appropriate and empower me to navigate what felt like a minefield. Phone conversations became regular, and he took the time, more than once, to make the nearly four-hour round trip—sharing the hardship and reinforcing the leader attribute of presence.2 Going beyond merely helping me meet my own needs, he demonstrated an understanding of how the OIC’s actions and decisions affected the team.

As the title indicates, empathy is a critical character attribute under the Army’s Leadership Requirements Model.3 While certainly a metric of some value, the simple fact that a Google search for “leadership and empathy” returns about 49.7 million hits is telling. Hits range from describing empathy as an “essential leadership skill”4 to categorizing it as a “tool for effective leadership,”5 and even going so far as to define it as “the most important leadership skill”6—all before you scroll past the first screen. Beyond a Google search, articles and studies regularly identify empathy as one of, if not the most important leadership traits in successful organizations.7 But, as clear and effective as anything you may find through a search or studies, our own doctrine provides the perfect analysis tool.

Our doctrine defines empathy as a “realization that leads to a deeper understanding” and says that it occurs when leaders “genuinely relate to another person’s situation, motives, or feelings.”8 You must form personal bonds with your team. And, you must go beyond proverbially “placing yourself in their shoes.” Share and relate to their hardships and frustrations. Building connection through common understanding and relatable speech and gestures challenges leaders more than simply positioning themselves to share hardships alongside subordinates. In addition to potentially eating or sleeping under the same physical conditions as troops in a field exercise or deployment, leaders must also convey empathy by recalling times when they have had a similar emotional reaction to an event the subordinate is experiencing now. Empathy will make us feel less alone in times of difficulty and give access to a new level of excitement and joy in successes. And those successes will be the team’s successes. We’ll spend almost one-third of our lives at work9—we should make connections and live our authentic lives there.

Empathy, of course, does not appear overnight just because the Army mandates it so. In fact, research has found that “empathy is most lacking among middle managers and senior executives: the very people who need it most because their actions affect such large numbers of people.”10 The good news is that leaders’ current capacity for empathy is not fixed; rather, willing leaders can grow empathy over time.11 Simply talking about the importance of empathy can grow empathy!12

Leaders must develop within themselves a certain foundation that will allow them to unlock more empathic skills. When speaking to others who have endured similar experiences of a “bad boss,” a lack of self-awareness is frequently cited for the basis of the boss’s ineffectiveness. Leaders cannot expect to “genuinely relate” to others if they are blind to themselves.13 Self-awareness allows leaders to understand not only their own motivations and tendencies, but also how that behavior affects and influences others.14 Self-awareness serves as a medium through which leaders build adaptability, effectiveness, and trust. One challenge is the classic disconnect between how one views oneself, and how one really is. Many people think they are self-aware, but doctrine acknowledges that “even though they should be self-aware, not all leaders are.”15

Leaders who practice humility and self-reflection, ask for and accept feedback from superiors, peers, and subordinates, and hold themselves accountable for their “performance, decisions, and judgment” are on the path to self-awareness.16 We must be willing to ask ourselves hard questions, acknowledge our weaknesses, and address them. One of the best questions to trigger self-reflection is to ask yourself—especially when making a big decision or in disagreeing with someone—“What if I’m wrong?”

Upon practicing a healthy dose of self-awareness, the next step is to employ self-regulation, the act of adjusting thoughts, feelings, and actions to close the gap between the actual and the desired self.17 Together, self-awareness and self-regulation create the emotional pause that allows a leader to actively listen and relate to others, when the leader’s first, self-unaware instinct may be to launch into a mission-focused tirade or disconnect from a teammate going through a hard time or celebrating a momentous occasion.

Once leaders are able to create the emotional pause, they must fill the void with something that will actually message empathy to others. Even when well-intentioned, unsuccessful attempts at empathy come off as pitying sympathy or, worse, placating or even patronizing insincerity. Sympathy often resembles a spectator’s observation of another’s experience. “Rarely, if ever, does an empathic response begin with, ‘At least . . .’”18 or “Don’t be silly . . . .” Statements like these fuel disconnection and highlight that the vulnerable person’s experience diverges from the norm, while the listener remains in a safe position of power and normality. Empathy, on the other hand, is allowing yourself to experience others’ emotions with them. Four defining attributes of empathy are:

  • Taking others’ perspectives;
  • Minimizing judgment (very challenging!);
  • Recognizing others’ emotions; and
  • Communicating understanding of others’ emotions and perspective.

No matter the similarity or difference in backgrounds, leaders can tap into past experiences triggering familiar emotions and then express, “I understand how you feel, and I don’t blame you for feeling X.”19 This successful expression of empathy fuels connection, building trust, and team cohesion.20

To avoid the pitfalls of superficial sympathy and to achieve the connection of empathy, leaders must communicate authentically. Authentic communication is thoughtful and deliberate. Rather than saying everything that comes to a leader’s mind, authentic leaders adapt their speech and gestures to the organization and even to the person.21 Rather than doing so to “‘messag[e]’ the right talking points,” authentic leaders are simply attuned and sensitive to their actions’ effects.22 They are not rigid in their perceptions of themselves or expect others to accommodate counter-productive leadership techniques or personality flaws. Instead, authentic leaders humbly acknowledge personal flaws and weaknesses, seeking understanding and growth.23

An authentic leader is adept at expressing this vulnerability to their subordinates and within their organization. Judge advocates are familiar with feeling the professional vulnerability of delivering candid advice that differs from what the boss wants to hear or relates to incredibly sensitive matters.24 Judge advocates gain credibility to commanders and thus become exceedingly valuable to them, and other clients, through the ability and willingness to offer this forthright advice, even when there is discomfort in the delivery.25 Some may call this “principled counsel.”26 Leaders will similarly develop trusting relationships within their organizations when they practice vulnerable authenticity.27 Daring to deliberately step into the discomfort of being your genuine, imperfect self with an aim toward growing cohesion within your organization is no less principled and, sometimes, pays greater dividends, in the creation of a self-perpetuating organizational culture of both deep trust and high performance.

Our Corps values leaders who both understand and are willing and able to be themselves, while being sensitive to how their words and actions affect those around them and the organizational environment. Developing the self-awareness and self-management skills necessary to become authentic will positively influence how leaders communicate with those in their organizations. If authenticity is a leader’s sincere presentation of himself to others, empathy is the inverse. By growing empathic capacity, leaders improve their ability to appropriately receive and respond to authenticity in others. Combining authenticity and empathy helps leaders develop a holistic approach to the personal side of leadership.

There is, of course, risk in being too empathic, leading to deterioration of mission accomplishment. Empathy practiced in a vacuum can be dangerous. Focusing on developing interpersonal skills is important to creating a positive working environment, but leaders must use caution to avoid becoming the “affable non-participant” leader, described as “interpersonally skilled and intellectually sound, but incapable of taking charge, making decisions, providing timely guidance, and holding subordinates accountable.”28 Communicating directly, authentically, and empathically in difficult situations is the truest test of leadership. Leaders, especially majors and those regularly communicating with the most junior members of our Corps, must master balancing directness with compassion. In other words, “saying what you think while also giving a damn about the person you’re saying it to.”29 Through this type of communication, leaders will better position themselves to achieve the mission, improve the organization, and develop themselves and their subordinate leaders.30

Doctrine details the leadership qualities and abilities expected of Soldiers. While compelling, this guidance is merely theory. Growing and maintaining this value-driven force is entirely dependent on the buy-in of local commands, units, and offices. How these leadership concepts filter through the ranks and how subordinate organizations execute them will determine how well leaders lead and how well they develop future leaders. It is incumbent on all leaders in our Corps to hold yourselves accountable and offer empathy to those surrounding you.

Twenty years later when MAJ L, now-COL L, was retiring, he was not in the best place, personally or professionally. I had the privilege of being in a position to be the empathic person who could try to make a difference as he transitioned. I hope I did half as well for him as he did for me. TAL

 


BG Berger is the Commanding General at The Judge Advocate General’s Legal Center and School, Charlottesville, Virginia.

MAJ Cohen is the Director, Professional Communications Program, Administrative and Civil Law Department at The Judge Advocate General’s Legal Center and School, Charlottesville, Virginia.



Notes

1. Any statements in the first-person narrative point of view are from Brigadier General Joseph Berger.

2. See generally U.S. Dep’t of Army, Doctrine Pub. 6-22, Army Leadership and the Profession (31 July 2019) [hereinafter ADP 6-22].

3. See generally ADP 6-22, supra note 2.

4. Prudy Gourguechon, Empathy Is an Essential Leadership Skill—And There’s Nothing Soft About It, Forbes (Dec. 26, 2017), https://www.forbes.com/sites/prudygourguechon/2017/12/26/empathy-is-an-essential-leadership-skill-and-theres-nothing-soft-about-it/#18a65b362b9d.

5. William A. Gentry, Todd J. Weber, & Golnaz Sadri, Empathy in the Workplace, A Tool for Effective Leadership, Center for Creative Leadership (Apr. 2015), https://www.ccl.org/wp-content/uploads/2015/04/EmpathyInTheWorkplace.pdf.

6. Harvey Deutschendorf, 5 Reasons Empathy Is the Most Important Leadership Skill, Fast Company (Dec. 6, 2018), https://www.fastcompany.com/90272895/5-reasons-empathy-is-the-most-important-leadership-skill.

7. Ernest J. Wilson III, Empathy Is Still Lacking in Leaders Who Need It Most, Harv. Bus. Rev. (Sept. 21, 2015), https://hbr.org/2015/09/empathy-is-still-lacking-in-the-leaders-who-need-it-most; Annie McKee, If You Can’t Empathize with Your Employees, You’d Better Learn To, Harv. Bus. Rev. (Nov. 16, 2016), https://hbr.org/2016/11/if-you-cant-empathize-with-your-employees-youd-better-learn-to; William G. Pagonis, Leadership in a Combat Zone, Harv. Bus. Rev. (Dec. 2001), https://hbr.org/2001/12/leadership-in-a-combat-zone (“To lead successfully, a person must demonstrate two active, essential, interrelated traits: expertise and empathy.”).

8. ADP 6-22, supra note 2, para. 2-23.

9. Karl Thompson, What Percentage of Your Life Will You Spend at Work, Revise Sociology (Aug 16, 2016), https://revisesociology.com/2016/08/16/percentage-life-work/.

10. Wilson, supra note 7.

11. McKee, supra note 7; Pagonis, supra note 7 (“In my experience, both [expertise and empathy] can be deliberately and systematically cultivated; this personal development is the first important building block of leadership.”).

12. Johanna Shapiro, How Do Physicians Teach Empathy in the Primary Care Setting?, 77 Acad. Med. 323, 326 (2002), https://cloudfront.escholarship.org/dist/prd/content/qt4wt3n93w/qt4wt3n93w.pdf?t=nhtkov; Forbes Coaches Counsel, 11 Ways Leaders Can Develop Empathy, Forbes, (Jan. 13, 2017), https://www.forbes.com/sites/forbescoachescouncil/2017/01/13/11-ways-leaders-can-develop-empathy/#4417c53137b6.

13. ADP 6-22, supra note 2.

14. Id.

15. Id. para. 1-31 (emphasis added).

16. Id. para. 6-15.

17. Id. para. 6-19.

18. Dr. Brené Brown, Empathy in RSA Shorts, YouTube (Dec. 10, 2013), https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=1Evwgu369Jw.

19. Theresa Wiseman, A Concept Analysis of Empathy, 23 J. of Advanced Nursing 1162–67 (1996).

20. Brown, supra note 18.

21. William W. George, The Truth About Authentic Leaders, Harv. Bus. School Working Knowledge (July 6, 2016), https://hbswk.hbs.edu/item/the-truth-about-authentic-leaders.

22. Id.

23. Id. See Bill George, Authentic Leadership (2003).

24. Brigadier General Charles N. Pede, Communication is the Key—Tips for the Judge Advocate, Staff Officer and Leader, Army Law., June 2016, at 4, 8.

25. Id.

26. Brigadier General Charles N. Pede, Principled Lawyering, Army Law., July-Aug. 2018, at 7.

27. Brené Brown, Daring Greatly 1-2 (2013); Pagonis, supra note 7 (Self-awareness “allows you to be real—in my experience, a vital contributing factor in effective leadership.”).

28. U.S. Dep’t. of Army, Reg. 600-100, Army Profession and Leadership Policy para. 1-10(a) (5 Apr. 2017).

29. Kim Scott, Why You Can’t Skimp On Radically Candid Performance Development Conversations, Radical Candor, https://www.radicalcandor.com/blog/why-you-cant-skimp-on-radically-candid-performance-development-conversations/ (last visited Oct. 24, 2019).

30. Radical Candor, https://www.radicalcandor.com/ (last visited Nov. 7, 2019).