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“E” Is for Empathy

mentor motivation Jun 14, 2019

By Nguyen “Tom” Griggs


For this column, I continue using acronyms to spell out the words BLACK BELT, as they relate to teams and leadership. This month, I’ll address “E,” which stands for empathy. Empathy means to relate to or understand another person’s experiences and thoughts.

In the early 2000s, I taught business courses at a local community college in Houston. One fall semester, I had a fun-loving and bright student named Jose. He was doing well in the course.

            During the last five weeks of class, however, Jose disappeared. He missed the remaining exams and his group-project assignment. Jose failed the course in spectacular fashion. His final grade for the entire course was almost a 37.

On the first day of the spring semester, I saw Jose in my classroom. He had an expression on his face that can only be described as shame, mischief and utter disbelief. After class, he walked up to me, apologized for the fall semester and shared a tale of youthful misadventure fueled by angst and alcohol.

The short version of his story is that his dad asked him to drive down to Mexico to look at some real estate. Jose took a few friends with him. While driving around, a police officer swerved into his lane, causing him to hit a parked car.

            The officer got out and proceeded to threaten to arrest him and asked him for a bribe. Infuriated, Jose punched the officer in the face. Four weeks later, after spending some “extra” time in Mexico, resulting in his absence, Jose returned home.

We both laughed about the incident, and I told him that I hoped everything was good now.

I informed Jose that the exams were going to be the same, but I changed the order of the questions and answers. I marked correct answers on the exams and let the students keep them for the final. I warned him to not memorize the old exam answers. He agreed and promised improvement.

A few weeks later, the class took their first exam and Jose bombs it horribly! When I compared his answers to the answer key from the fall semester, it became clear that he had memorized those answers!

We talked again after the first exam and he told me he was sorry for being lazy. When I administered the second exam, he once again memorized the answers and failed miserably. Shortly afterwards, he dropped the class.

Why Empathy Matters for Leaders and Teams

            Personally, I work on being understanding and empathetic. But honestly, I couldn't relate to anything Jose did. As leaders, we have to be able to put ourselves in other people’s shoes and relate to what they experience. The same is true for team members as well.

But effort from all sides is required for good use of empathy and relationship-building. Here are three tips on effectively using empathy for teams and leaders.

1) Be consistent. Some days, you aren’t in the mood. People’s stories and issues just aren’t connecting with you. I tried to work with Jose, but in the spring semester he kept taking the easy route and it showed.

However, please be as empathetically consistent as possible. Consistency creates fairness and respect with your people. If you aren’t consistent with your sense of empathy, others may see you as unbalanced or playing favorites.

2) Don’t confuse sympathy and empathy. Sympathy means to “feel as someone else feels.” Confusing sympathy and empathy can lead to poor decision-making.

I can relate to Jose messing up on an exam or two. I certainly could not relate to failing the same exams because of laziness.

Giving people room to correct and grow despite your lack of mutual experiences and subsequent feelings will help you and others grow. When he showed me his unwillingness to improve, he dropped the course.

3) Empathy isn’t an excuse for mediocrity. You operate a business and have expectations and standards. Please hold everyone and yourself to those standards. You can sympathize or relate to other peoples’ experiences without taking on problems and issues. Show others that you understand, but keep one eye on your business and mission at all times.

I gave Jose space to make things right and he didn't. Trust me, I can relate to messing up big time. Yet when I was given the chances to succeed, I didn't take them for granted.

Thanks for reading! I hope my column has been helpful. I hope to see you all at the 2019 MASuperShow in Las Vegas.


Nguyen “Tom” Griggs is a professional consultant/speaker in the areas of Teams, Leadership and Conflict and can be reached at [email protected]

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