One supervisor says empathy training turned him from a no-nonsense manager into an understanding, caring leader.
A few months ago, Aaron Gibson considered himself a very direct manager. He’d often say whatever was on his mind.
“My wife will tell you, I was like Archie Bunker,” he said, referring to the brusque 1970s sitcom character. “No, that’s not how we’re doing it,” Gibson would say to the more than 100 employees he oversees. “Unless you proved to me that you’re a hard worker, I wouldn’t really deal with you.”
But in April, Gibson, executive director of three Pittsburgh YMCAs, took a five-hour crash course on leading with empathy. He says it turned him from a no-nonsense manager into an understanding, caring leader.
And as a result of the training, the 48-year-old said the programs he runs are on pace for record membership. He relates better to his employees, which has made them more productive.
“My whole demeanor has changed,” he said. “It’s made me a better man.”
About 20 percent of employers in the United States offer empathy training for managers, a jump from 10 years ago, reports the Wall Street Journal. LinkedIn, Tesla Motors, Cisco Systems Inc. and Ford Motor Co. are among the growing number of firms to have invested in empathy training.
A 2016 Development Dimensions International study of more than 15,000 leaders in 18 countries found an empathy index’s top performing businesses generated 50 percent more income per employee than the index’s bottom performers. Translation: Empathetic employees, from the top-down, perform better.
During the course, which lasted from about 9 a.m. to 2 p.m. one Friday, Gibson was put with three or four other managers from across the region. They were given a list of scenarios and required to act them out in front of a group.
In one scenario, Gibson was a supervisor. One of the workers he managed did not make quota due to personal problems. Reports were late and deadlines missed.
“That old Aaron wanted to say, ‘I don’t care what’s going on at home, you need to hit your deadline,’” he said. “Now? It’s, ‘Is there anything I can do to help you? Do you need some assistance?’”
Among the strategies he’s implemented: He meets with the staff members who report to him on a bi-weekly basis. He’s begun an open-door policy, often meeting with individuals one-on-one. He asks colleagues about their personal lives. He might ask if there is anything he can do to help an employee on a project.
“It’s about engaging with them,” he said.
Daniel Messinger, a professor of psychology at the University of Miami, co-wrote a 2011 paper titled, “The Development of Empathy: How, When, and Why.” He said in a phone interview that empathy is putting yourself in somebody else’s emotional shoes and having a sense of what they are experiencing.
One of his paper’s themes illustrates that an important part of social and emotional development is empathy, often a result of one’s childhood environment.
But empathy can be easily learned, he said. There are times in life when people naturally want to be empathetic and times when they don’t, he added. Finding the balance is key.
As Gibson says, “How do you be empathetic, but not let that person off the hook?” It takes time to develop a feel, he says. To find that balance and grow empathetic toward yourself and others, Messinger suggests practicing mindfulness — defined as a mental state achieved by focusing one’s awareness on the present moment, while calmly acknowledging and accepting one’s feelings, thoughts, and bodily sensations, used as a therapeutic technique.
“We all have the seeds of empathy,” he said.
For Gibson, this strategy is especially new. He grew up in Pittsburgh’s East End, what he calls a brutal neighborhood — he knows more than 100 people who have been shot.
Forced to fend for himself from a young age shaped who he was as a manager. “Figure it out, get it done by all means necessary,” he said.
Now managing more than 100 people, Gibson has also made adjustments to his body language as a result of the course. No longer does he look straight at somebody and stare them down.
Instead, he rests in a more friendly pose. He demonstrated this by sitting straight up in his chair. In his new position, he leans back and smiles.
He also learned to listen actively and let whomever he’s talking to know he really cares. He might nod and say, “I understand, I feel your pain,” and, “I know what you’re saying.” He’s noticed people are more open to speaking with him.
Trey McCune, the YMCA’s healthy living director and a colleague, said Gibson was at times unreachable, rarely available to chat. He would never ask about potential problems. But now, he asks how he can help. On some weekends, Gibson will shoot McCune a text to let him know his efforts are appreciated.
The training improved all relationships of his life, in and out of the office. For instance, Gibson takes his two children to school every morning. He helps his wife Kelretta in the kitchen with meals, which she says has decreased her anxiousness. Instead of choosing to work 9 a.m. to 9 p.m., Gibson leaves the office at around 6 p.m. or 7 p.m.
“It’s made a big difference in the way he interacts with our children and me,” said Kelretta Gibson. “Now he’s more hands on and involved.”
Last summer, an employee met with Gibson, asking for a raise. He recalls giving her a blank stare and saying, “OK, we’ll see.” The employee quit.
“I should have said to myself, ‘Aaron, she’s just like you,’” he said. “I lost somebody who was really strong.”
To make it up to her, Gibson plans to take her to lunch and apologize.