Laura Eurich // Leadership and Empathy

October 26, 2018

Laura Eurich is an Associate Chair, Director of Undergraduate Studies, and Internship Director for the Department of Communications at the University of Colorado Colorado Springs. She is also currently serving as project lead on our Social Service Access Project.

I’m the first to send a text before making a phone call. I will write an email or check Slack before showing up to talk to someone. And yes, when news is breaking, I go to Twitter to stay abreast of developments.

Technology might have increased our productivity – in some ways, it’s even improved the quality of our lives. But one thing technology has not done is enhanced the quality of our leadership.

Working with the social services group this week, I was thinking a lot about empathy. As the group explores and tries to understand barriers to accessing social services, empathy comes up again and again.

The outreach team from Urban Peak visited with our group. This team exemplified empathy in action. Each day they walk the streets of the city connecting with homeless youth. They bring supplies, they listen, they try to help any way they can.

You don’t have to look far to learn (or be reminded) that empathy is a critical leadership skill. Articles from the likes of Forbes and research from the Center for Creative Leadership top the Google search for “empathy as a leadership skill.” While the connection is clear, the ability to understand and share the feelings of others sometimes seems like it’s a gift that few possess.

A 2017 article in Psychology Today says that we are born with empathy, but it’s also a learned behavior that must first be modeled when we are children and later practiced. Technology gets in the way of that practice.

Practicing empathy starts with listening. We don’t have to listen when we communicate electronically. We read, we respond, we don’t hear the meaning in the words.

Empathy continues with looking into someone’s eyes and trying to see if what’s there matches what’s expressed. Sure, technology has given us FaceTime but that’s still not sitting in front of someone to listen and watch.

Practicing empathy means being curious about those around you (not just when you think they are in need), striving to understand their values and beliefs, setting aside your biases, and asking questions.

In a computer-mediated world, we can filter our experiences to align with our worldview. We forget there are human beings on the other side of the 1’s and 0’s. We preach before we listen. We judge ideas and others by 280 characters instead of actual character. We argue before we understand.

No, we won’t stop using our phones. We cannot live without electronic communication. I get that. But it is our responsibility as we strive to be leaders in our workplaces and our community to remember there’s a world in front of us that should demand our attention as much as the screens in our lives.