By Carol Hurst, LVT, CVPM, CVJ
There seems to be a lot of misconceptions regarding empathy out there. What it is, what it isn’t and how it can help you be stronger.
What empathy isn’t.
I tend to categorize people into two groups (despite there being a spectrum, much like there is in most situations). Those for whom empathy comes naturally. Those who can easily put themselves into the situations and feelings of others. Then there are those for whom empathy is a constant struggle. I tend to fall into the latter category. It took me many years to realize that being able to express empathy in a professional setting was a strength and not a weakness. I knew the technical definition but I could never translate it into practice.
When an employee is sitting across from you, talking about how her Dad is an alcoholic and she had to go and pick him up late last night and that’s why she overslept her alarm. There’s an authentic type of distress in her voice, her eyes fill with tears and for a moment she’s less concerned about her job than she is about her Dad. I used to think that during this situation, if I displayed empathy that it would mean that I had to give this person a special exception to the policy in our handbook. That if showed that I cared too much about what she was going through, it meant I wouldn’t be able to do my job.
This isn’t empathy.
Expressing empathy doesn’t mean that just because another person is going through a rough time that it is going to change anything in what move you have to make regarding performance or holding them to a certain standard.
Likewise, for those for whom empathy comes naturally, they struggle in the other direction. These individuals feel so keenly the distress, anxiety, grief or anger that another person is displaying that they are incapacitated and their decision-making skills are compromised. They are right there, with that person, experiencing every lump and bump that person is going through. Often, managers with natural empathy feel they need to help those employees more than what would be appropriate in a professional setting.
This can create multiple conflicts and strains within the manager-employee relationship. Such as, if you have an employee who just got kicked out of their home and you have an extra room in your house it may seem like an easy decision to make to offer to let this employee stay with you. When you are the owner or manager of a business, you have a bigger obligation to the collective group of employees. Making decisions that blur the lines of professionalism can create many problems for you emotionally and for your practice. Aside from any legal implications, if you are spending all of your emotional currency on one person, how will you have anything left for everyone else? This doesn’t mean that you can’t be human and help someone out when it is appropriate. A good “Rule of Thumb” that I like to coach others on is, can you offer this exception that you are about to make to any other employee in your practice if they were in a similar situation? If this answer is no, you’ve got some thinking to do.
Being able to put yourself in another’s shoes might be the technical definition of empathy but it isn’t serving this manager in a way that will benefit them or their employee. Also, creating and setting boundaries can help those who find their decision-making is negatively impacted. If boundaries are seriously blurred, it may be time to sit down with that employee and let them know that you are not able to lend any more emotional support.
What does empathy mean to me? Exercising empathy is the ultimate way to sustain a connection with your team.
What does this look like?
- On an individual basis, it means that if someone is having a rough time, you make time for them, actively listen and be present and in the moment. It doesn’t mean that you can’t hold them to your hospital’s standards. It does mean that you treat them and their situation like real people. We can get so caught up in the black and white of broken rules and policy/protocol that it is easy to forget that everyone is just trying to live their lives the best way they know how.
- On a team basis, it means that if your team is having a rough time (angry client, extended visit by “Dr. Death,” being short-handed, tragedy that hits close home, etc) that you take notice and take steps to help them de-stress and connect. This can be a timely snack/coffee run. It can look like hand-written thank you notes or blowing off steam with something sill.
- Empathy keeps you actively engaged in the pulse of what’s going on with the people around you. As leaders, we owe our team that level of connection.
This job is demanding. There are many different elements that pull us in different directions. It is easy to seal ourselves up in a cocoon of policy and procedure. Making every situation black and white is simple but it doesn’t endear. It doesn’t inspire. Let empathy be your breath of fresh air. Let it allow you to make those human connections that are so important in the day to day.
The views and opinions expressed in this article are those of the author and do not necessarily reflect the position of the Unchartedvet.com editorial team.
The relentless pursuit of growth is what inspires Carol. She has been in the veterinary industry since 2005 when she graduated tech school and became a Licensed Veterinary Technician. A fascination with animal medicine was only the beginning. Even more than helping furred and feathered friends, she found that she enjoyed being able to affect the positive change within her clinic that having a leadership role afforded her. She’s been managing for nine years. An interest in using her skills to improve the veterinary industry has led her to volunteer her time. She currently writes articles to help educate bird owners through the National Association of Avian Veterinarians, she served as the Newsletter Editor for her state Veterinary Technician Association, she writes articles for her state’s veterinary association’s website dedicated to educating pet owners and she’s also written numerous management related articles. Through her quality education materials she gained the designation as a Certified Veterinary Journalist in December of 2016. After many years of study, she gained the designation as a Certified Veterinary Practice Manager in November of 2016. Her proudest accomplishment to date is the work that she’s performed for her local management group. She has been a member since 2010 and currently serves as the Vice-President, playing an integral part in forming the Board that has helped empower managers to reach their full potential. It was from the enrichment gained through helping other managers that ignited her own spark and started her own journey, as she partnered with Amy Kelley, CVPM, to form Blue Flame Veterinary Consulting in December of 2016.