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How to become a more empathetic manager

The best way to boost employee wellbeing is to upskill your managers in empathy and emotional intelligence

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Lead by exampleSet better boundaries for your teamCelebrate people unreservedlyUse your network

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  • Building a foundation of empathy in the workplace is essential for improving employee wellbeing and managers play a key role in bringing about this change.
  • In companies with fewer than 100 employees, a significant portion of workers feel unable to discuss mental health concerns with their managing, highlighting the need for proper training and support structures for managers.
  • To become a more empathetic manager, senior leadership should lead by example, set clear boundaries for their teams, celebrate achievements, and leverage their network to share experiences and employee wellbeing resources.

Managing employee wellbeing

When we sign up to oversee other people at work, we accept it as recognition that we’ve grown in our roles and responsibilities. But most of us aren’t prepared for the fact that one of those new roles is a therapist for our direct reports. Surprise!

Managing people is a lot of emotional labour. And whether you’ve worked your way through the ranks or you’ve been hired in as a big fish, navigating your colleagues’ emotions doesn’t always come naturally. 

One of the best ways to improve employee wellbeing is to teach managers the skills to get more in tune with their team’s feelings. That can only happen by building a foundation of empathy in the workplace. According to Dame Carol Black's review of the health of Britain's workers, “Good management can lead to good health, wellbeing and improved performance. Good health equals good business, and the line manager is a key agent of change.” 

"Good health equals good business, and the line manager is a key agent of change."

— Dame Carol Black

But in companies with fewer than 100 employees, 47% of workers still feel unable to talk to their managers about mental health concerns. And 80% of managers don’t feel equipped to talk about them, either.

Getting the right manager training and support structures in place should be a priority for any growing business. Luckily, there are also a few pretty immediate things you can do to become a more empathetic manager, protect your team’s mental wellbeing and generally help people to thrive under your supreme rule/ sensible business guidance.

1. Lead by example

💡 Reflect on how you were managed

Acting as a role model means giving your team a point of reference for how to behave to be successful in your business. And just like parenting, managing is something we learn from past relationships. If you’re stuck in a rut with one of your team, reflect on your own relationships with your managers, past and present. If there’s a dynamic you recognise that might be repeating itself, think about how it made you feel as a report – and adjust accordingly. 

🎯 Make self-care a work objective

Self-care isn’t something you should do on the side. Taking time to reflect, learn or go on holiday is your duty as a manager (hooray!). And the more visible you can make it, the better for your team. If you’re struggling to make time for these measures, make them a KPI to show that you, and the business, take the wellbeing of your team seriously. (At Spill, taking holiday is a key performance metric for everyone who works here.)

🌱 Be the change you want to see

People do what you do, not what you say. If your report isn’t taking feedback well, show them how you action feedback yourself. In fact, make a point of giving yourself feedback every time you give them some. That way, it’s easier to check in and report on progress, no nagging necessary.

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2. Set better boundaries for your team

🚩 Avoid ambiguity

Setting clear boundaries for your direct reports is key to swerving unnecessary stress and unwieldy office politics. Your team needs to know what you can and can’t do for them, what’s OK to say and what’s not, and what to expect from each one-to-one meeting. Switching unpredictably between wearing your ‘friend’ and ‘manager’ hats is likely to do more harm than good. Ambiguity triggers our stress responses, because our body is trying to prepare for any and all outcomes. So setting clear expectations will make everybody more comfortable (and every meeting more productive).

🧠 Give space for feelings

As a manager, this is a really important way to show empathy at work. A one-to-one meeting is an opportunity to connect, over and above discussing feedback and project solutions. Before you head into your one-to-one with a colleague, be conscious about ‘bracketing’ your own feelings. Go in ready to listen and attend to that person. It’s easy to swoop in with reassurance or platitudes, but unless you give your team the space and time to express themselves and feel truly heard, their emotions are bound to spill out in other places along their working week. 

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3. Celebrate people unreservedly

💙 Be vocal with your compliments

As well as giving us the warm and fuzzies, paying compliments is actually a kind of performance hack for managers. Positive reinforcement simply helps people to remember things better. Unlike criticism or constructive feedback, which busies our brain with patching up our self esteem, praise is super easy for our brains to process. And your team will remember that reward next time they’re doing a similar task. 

🏆 Give unconditional praise

Objective praise for the things we’ve achieved at work is known as ‘conditional praise’. As a manager, it’s important to dish out plenty of timely, conditional praise to keep your team motivated towards their work targets. But unconditional praise – where you recognise someone’s contributions outside of their performance, like their attitude, their approach or their personality – has a special place in people’s hearts. It’s a great way to show you appreciate them as a person, not just a worker, and that their identity will always be welcomed, supported and celebrated at work.

4. Use your network

🗣 Talk to your peers

It’s likely that you’re not the only manager in your business. Which means it’s also likely that the things you’re puzzling about have been pre-puzzled by your colleagues. If someone you manage is struggling with their workload or their mental health, a natural response is to try and solve it yourself. But more often than not, it won’t be an isolated incident. Setting up a regular check-in to ask other managers about their experiences can be a valuable way to practise empathy at work, share the emotional labour and prioritise wellbeing in your team. Calibrating a group response will also feel infinitely less stressful, because the outcome is a joint decision. 

📚 Seek out trusted resources

Ask your business to clarify the party line on recurring issues that have been raised by your team. And ask them for resources, guidelines and training that might help. If you haven’t published a mental health policy for your workplace yet, that’s a brilliant place to start. We’ve written some practical tips and templates to help you build your own mental health policy today. 

Your management style has a massive impact on improving employee wellbeing

But it shouldn’t be a one-size-fits-all approach. Don’t be afraid to ask your team individually how they would like to be managed, and adapt your style accordingly.

Becoming a more empathetic manager takes a bit of a conscious effort, but it might be one of the most important things you can do to protect and improve the mental health and fortitude of your team. 

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Download our employee wellbeing survey template

Give your managers the wellbeing data they need to make informed decisions

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