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How To Teach Managers Empathy

The futurists are predicting that companies who want to increase their ability to attract high-quality team members will have to learn something about empathy in managing those teams.

The hardest part about that is trying to teach managers how to employ empathy instead of force or snap-orders. More and more the workforce is demanding not only diversity and inclusion, but a different style of management than was prevalent at least when I first started working in the 90’s (not really that long ago, People!)

I was yelled at by angry chef’s, minimized by managers that did not know the first thing about people skills, and even had one GM make a nasty joke about my body at a staff meeting! I was not present, but I found out from a colleague who had been. She was a woman of color, like me, and was infuriated when she witnessed it. Aside from feeling completely outraged and humiliated, you can imagine how much respect and loyalty I felt for that guy after I found out. This was not a one-off incident either. It was the culture that General Manager fostered. The result? I quit not too long after that. I was their lead trainer and one of their top producers.

How many companies lose good talent because of either insensitive, clumsy, inexperienced, un-trained or un-coached managers?

Too many, I would venture.

Some believe you cannot teach empathy or at least how to employ empathy in management. I disagree. It is all about teaching them how to engage. When I was in a Director position, leading large teams via supervisors and managers, this was one of the most challenging endeavors, for sure. How do you get them to handle their staff with empathy instead of blowing their heads off? Perhaps you don’t see the problem with that aggressive method. Let me shine some light on what that method can result in –

  • Loss of good employees,

  • Demoralized teams that conspire against you, and

  • Lawsuits

That's just to name a few. I have witnessed every one of those. None were pretty.

Now, this doesn’t imply that there are not some cases where a team member is just not a good fit.

I believe that if someone is not a good fit, the sooner you reroute them the better. Someone in the wrong role will prove very costly in terms of wasted time and resources. However, the only way to truly assess that is to ensure you have truly done everything – everything – used every tool in your toolbox – to train, coach, mentor and provide them with what they need to succeed. If you can honestly say you have done that, and still, you are getting nowhere with that team member, then and only then can you justify throwing in the towel. Let that person go somewhere else where they will be a better fit and a better asset. Just be careful that you are not blowing off good talent because you or someone in your management team did not do everything they could to help them succeed, did not manage with the intention to grow that team member.

As a Director, I often had to focus on the bigger-picture items as opposed to the daily operations – things like long-term strategy, policy and growing the business. I needed the leaders who reported to me to lead effectively and independently. That meant avoiding my frequently being called down to HR any time a manager and their staff member had an escalated dispute, usually due to that manager’s mishandling of the communication.

Here are some powerful strategies I implemented that helped immensely - minimized conflict and enhanced productivity:

· Weekly Role-Playing Sessions – I would have the managers and supervisors bring me a challenging situation they were facing with a team member, whether it be in correcting, writing up or providing specific feedback on a sensitive matter. Then I would coach them through the conversation. We would role play it until they felt confident about it.

· Follow-Up – This step is vital. I would follow up on how it went - What went well? What did not? How would they do it differently if they could have a re-play? Then I would provide feedback and we would role play some more. I would also have the manager/supervisor follow up with the team member to ensure the conversation had been constructive and well received. No lingering “bad feelings.”

· Training – I conducted regular trainings to increase effective communication skills through tools like the DISC Behavioral Profile.

· Team Building – I implemented monthly all-staff meetings with team building games, training and open discussion on topics like how to improve systems and communication. We would review the team vision and how that vision affected them individually. What about that vision motivated each of them? This not only gave the team members a platform to voice ideas and concerns, but also got them engaging with their leadership team in a constructive and fun way.

· More Communication – I encouraged the leaders to check in with each team member daily, or as often as possible, to get to know them on a deeper level; understand their individual stories, circumstances and challenges. This was huge in increasing empathy and reducing conflict (as well as trips to HR.) It is hard to judge someone harshly when you know their pains, frustrations, hopes and dreams. This is just good practice for any human being, but especially one whose job it is to inspire cooperation and get diverse team members working in synergy.

As an Executive Coach, these are some of the strategies I now encourage my clients to use. It is always exciting to me when they come back to our next session beaming, “It Worked!”

Teaching someone how to engage is not always easy, but it is definitely not impossible. It just takes some training, some coaching and a LOT of practice. Don’t expect it all to go perfectly at first try. We are not going for perfection. We are going for progress!


Mitch Savoie Hill, Certified Executive Coach, TEDx Speaker, and DISC Certified Corporate Trainer, is the Founder and CEO of SavHill Consulting LLC.

With over 25 years of experience in Sales, Hospitality, Training and Leadership, she delivers engaging and energetic presentations for any company or group wanting to increase engagement and productivity.

Mitch helps her clients clarify their vision, map out actionable strategies, and Stretch Their Horizons!

To find out more about Coaching or Corporate Training with Mitch,

Schedule a consultation here -

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