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The Empathy Equation

Years ago I read a Harvard Business School book about the company of the future. The author said future leaders would need to be brave, wise, persistent and visionary. Of course, I agreed.


But I have since learned that successful leaders also need to be empathetic.


“As anyone who’s had to manage a lot of people can tell you, human beings are extremely sensitive to fairness and where they stand in the social order,” says Loran Nordgren, an associate professor of management and organizations at the Kellogg School of Management at Northwestern University.


Bravery, wisdom and all that are sure important. But empathy inspires others. It helps a leader to be better informed. It accomplishes so much for leaders.


So, to help you cultivate empathy, I’ve come up with something I call the Empathy Equation: X (empathy) = A + B + C.

A is one facet of empathy. B another, and C still another. Together, they equal the X factor for a successful leader: empathy.

A: Help People Grow

Basically, empathy means recognizing everyone on their own terms. So, the first part of the Empathy Equation is to assist people in their advancement.


Kyle Yu, project executive at California Drywall, says: “Be a human being and communicate with them.”


Successful leaders want to make the world around them a better place, especially the people they lead. In his book, “Management as a Calling: Leading Business, Serving Society,” Andrew J. Hoffman, professor of management and organizations at the Ross School of Business at the University of Michigan, encourages young leaders to define this aspect of their roles very clearly and not leave it to chance.


“Leadership is rewarding when I see people grow, when I see their perception of problems and their attack of problems evolve and get better,” says Yu.


Champion the growth of your team members. It’s a facet of the truly empathic leader.

B: Admit You Lack All the Answers

Modesty is another facet of empathy. Modesty means knowing your limitations. And this quality gives others the ability to relate to you, which is crucial to leading them.


Modesty works like a magnet.


“You actually will come across stronger to the people you’re leading if you show that you don’t have all the answers,” said Steve Kerr, head coach of the NBA’s Golden State Warriors, in a recent “View from the Top” podcast on leadership from the Stanford Graduate School of Business. “As long as they know you’re putting in the work.”


In our industry, leaders who are modest regularly get down in the trenches with their crews, so to speak, and help them solve problems. Doing this makes the entire team more closely knit and receptive to direction.


Modesty helps a leader to become both a respected authority figure but also an approachable one. Because you create “psychological safety” for others, your team will, according to The New York Times, “put forward ideas, questions or challenges without facing ridicule or retaliation.”


“The very nature of innovation requires employees to suggest half-formed ideas, take risks or propose solutions that may not have data to inform them,” says the Times. “And that can happen only in an environment in which employees feel secure and safe.”

C: Let Them Decide

When crews participate in making decisions, projects just run better. In turn, the crews feel valued and respected.


One story recently came to my desk that illustrates the value of the Empathy Equation: The structural steel framing detail on a project called for rebar or a threaded rod to be welded to the back of a 1/4-inch-thick steel clip.


The foreman (A: a young leader with management potential) thought that setting up a welding rig on site would be time consuming, would add to site congestion and would even raise safety concerns. The project leader (B: who lacked all the answers) decided to get out of the way. He listened to the foreman (C: who felt valued as a decision participant). The clip was built off site in the company’s prefabrication shop.


The leader applied the Empathy Equation, X = A + B + C, and the work got done faster, more efficiently and with no compromise to job site safety.


And that’s how you do it. Sure, leaders need to be brave, wise, persistent and visionary, but empathy is that X factor that makes a true leader stand out.

Mark L. Johnson writes for the wall and ceiling industry. He can be reached via

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