Are You Showing Empathy Up?

By: Josh

Do you show empathy up the chain towards your boss and your higher headquarters staff? This is a common leadership blind spot, where we prioritize building internal team cohesion, but unintentionally make our boss and upper management out to be the villains…to become the infamous they we are struggling against.

Our previous article explored the importance of empathy for leaders. In it, we defined empathy as our ability and willingness to identify, understand, and consider others. When we do, we appreciate their beliefs, values, circumstances, and experiences to meet them where they are – mentally, emotionally, and even physically. Ultimately, it’s a practice to seek to understand others first before we judge them, or exercise leadership that impacts them like giving guidance or making decisions.

This all tends to focus on how we lead down or even work across with peers and colleagues, though. It centers on how we use empathy to better connect with those we lead to build more trusting, cohesive bonds with them. But only considering empathy down is an incomplete view of this leadership behavior. What about empathy up our chain? And across to our peers and colleagues? Does that matter? If so, what does it look like?

Born from our subconscious blind spots or biases, we may easily focus on empathy down to those within the teams we lead, while simultaneously displaying attitudes of hostility, distrust, and aloofness to those up our chain. It’s often easy to view our bosses and their staffs as “they.” They are incompetent. They are the source of our team’s problems. If only they would do their job better, we could be more effective at our level. They are the weak link in our organization.

Only demonstrating empathy down-and-in yet failing to do so up-and-out is an incomplete approach. It’s also unhealthy, both for you and for your team. It’s a bias we should recognize and act against. We must have the ability to evaluate a situation and recognize what other people or groups are experiencing. We have to express empathy up to our bosses, their staffs, and our higher headquarters. This is an act of ownership and professional maturity, not victimhood or stubbornness. Doing so is a simple way to not only be a better leader, but also a better follower and a good teammate across our broader organization. This helps us to add more value across the  organization and not just focus on our individual team.

So, how can we be more empathetic up the chain? I believe it calls for a combination of mental shifts and personal behavior adjustments.

Mental Shifts: A Few Things to Consider

To encourage us to be more empathetic up our organizational chain, there are a few simple things to remember. These are small attitude shifts that will help us pause and be more patient with those above us.

First, recognize that we are a single puzzle piece. Our broader organization and the environment it competes in is a massive, complicated puzzle. Assuming we are not at the top of the organization and that we have bosses and staffs above us, our team represents just one single piece within that puzzle. As a result, we do not see the whole picture; we cannot appreciate the challenges occurring across the whole organization. Removing ourselves and our team as our mental focal point of the organization can help us be more patient and understanding.

Second, understand that the higher the echelon, the more complex the problems. The higher we go in the organization, not only does the number of problems tend to increase, but so does the complexity of them. The really hard problems, ones we likely never see or hear about, are often addressed and resolved before they ever make their way down to us. Sometimes it can be helpful to consider that the leaders and staff above us are dealing with problems we know nothing about. A little patience and empathy could go a long way to maintaining healthy, productive relationships up.

Next, know that our boss has priorities too. As leaders, we have three broad, enduring priorities. First, we do what is morally, ethically, and socially right. Second, we do what our boss wants. Third, then, we get to do what we want based on our own priorities and what we think is important for our team. Our boss has priorities that we ought to commit to. The same applies to the staff above us as well. They are not out to get us or make our work unnecessarily harder. They are not conjuring up unnecessary work for no reason. They are simply working according to their boss’s priorities, too.  

Finally, remember that we are leaders, not victims. Human nature tends to default to the fundamental attribution error – others’ challenges are based on internal matters (it’s their fault), but our challenges are due to some external circumstance out of our control (not our fault). When we fail or experience problems, we usually look to place blame externally. As a result, it is easy to cast blame on some other party as the source of our problems. However, as leaders, we are charged with responsibility, with decision making, and solving problems. So, instead of reducing to blaming or victimhood, leaders should look to determining where we can add value. Things are not happening to us; we are not helpless. Rather, we should recognize the current situation and begin to determine solutions that we can act on to improve the scenario for our team.

Behavior Adjustments: How We Can Show Empathy Up

Now, with a few mental shifts made, we can express empathy up authentically and productively. These adjustments in behavior are not major, sweeping changes. They are small, conscious decisions we can and should make on a daily basis.

First, and most importantly in my opinion, assume positive intent in others. No person or team is perfect. But we can assume that everyone is doing the best they can, given their current resources, limitations, and constraints. No one is out to create problems, to prevent others from succeeding, or to make work unnecessarily harder. It’s likely safe to believe that everyone cares, is doing their best to contribute, and working to add value. They are not the enemy. So, consider assuming positive intent in the moments we feel like the staff members above us are failing. Seek to understand their situation before casting judgement. It can never hurt to assume positive intent.

Additionally, aim to seek clarity and add value, not merely criticize. The first step of problem solving is to identify the problem, sure. But so often, “leaders” tend to stop there – identifying the problem – which comes in the form of criticism or complaining. If our boss or a higher staff issues guidance that maybe does not make sense, we don’t start with throwing our hands up in victimhood or responding with emotional criticism. Instead, leaders who act with ownership, through professional maturity, and focus on adding value do a couple of things. First, we ask questions to better understand and seek clarity. That can sound like, “Boss, I understand your decision is X. I am looking to understand it some more so I can fully support it and explain it to my team. I have a few questions to better understand.” Second, we seek ways to add value to the situation. We ask, “How can I help?” People tend to either create problems, identify them, solve them, or prevent them. Where do we fall on that spectrum in how we respond to our higher echelons?

Also, be deliberate to self-regulate before we respond. When we get a decision, guidance, or even rumors of things from our high headquarters that upset us, how do we respond? How should we? Responding with high levels of emotion, sarcasm, or criticism will not contribute productively to the situation. So, what must we do to ensure we contribute positively? Do we need to sit on the email for an hour before we send it? Wait a day or until after lunch? Have someone else read it first? What about how we talk about the situation with our team? If we feel compelled to complain about it to our team, should we first step into our office or go for a short walk to the bathroom before we initiate the discussion? There are various ways we can create short pauses during the day before we respond. Ensure we are committing to such habits so we can engage productively.

Lastly, set the example to our team. How we talk about upper management sets a precedence within our team. When “they” give us last-minute things to deal with, make a decision that we don’t agree with, or issue guidance that seems to lack common sense, how do we respond? Do we criticize in front of our team? Or do we express empathy, acknowledging the challenges those leaders and staff are likely dealing with? Being mindful in how we talk about our organizational chain above us to our team can go a long way to establishing a considerate, supportive team climate.

Remember…

Empathy up toward our bosses and higher headquarters is a demonstration of maturity, ownership, and care. But it’s also hard. It takes patience, perspective, and understanding. That requires practice, deliberate effort and attention, and care. But in the end, it creates a more productive and cohesive work environment across the organization. A unified organization aligned with a we attitude up and down the chain will accomplish more than one with an us vs. them attitude. They’ll be able to sustain it longer, too.

Empathy is appreciating the circumstances, challenges, and needs of others. We do it down within our team, yes, but we also need to do it up to our superiors.

What are small ways you can put this into action this week? How can you encourage your team to show empathy up? Where can I focus on adding value rather than simply complaining?

In doing so, we build a healthier team, we become better teammates, and we help nurture a more positive work environment.

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