In The Spirit of Empathy

May 02, 2015 No Comments by

Cheryl BachelderThe most effective Sponsors of Change don’t take their role as a visionary lightly.

Nor do they abuse their leadership position by dictating a future without input from those who will be most impacted.

Most of all; they lean into the task of setting a vision because it’s in their nature. They honestly and humbly relish the role. They actually care so much about those whom they lead that they view their role through the lens of stewardship.

I’m reading a pretty good book on servant leadership this week. It’s called “Dare to Serve” and it’s written by Cheryl Bachelder, the CEO of Popeye’s Louisiana Kitchen, Inc.

You can get the book <here>

Something to Think About: One quote Bachelder uses caught my attention the other morning – mostly because of how the author uses it to introduce what some may consider a taboo topic.Dare to Serve Book Cover

The issue at hand is how to motivate people with roles in the food service industry when many employees view this work as drudgery or see their position as a “starter job” with limited potential for personal growth.

Here’s the nugget from Studs Terkel that Bachelder uses to broach a subject that many “leaders” would rather sweep under the rug:

“Most of us … have jobs that are too small for our spirits.”

The author goes on to share a series of wonderful insights into why we should more fully appreciate food service professionals and why they should feel quite good about their work:

“I know amazing people who work in the restaurant business. They deserve respect and dignity for what they do for a living. They feed people. They develop leaders. They help kids get through high school.

They give people first and second chances for employment. They serve people kindly. They teach and counsel team members. They create jobs. They give generously in the community.

They give the best of themselves to the people and the communities they serve.”

Tackle Box LunchEmpathy in Leadership: This short reference list illustrates a trait that many of the best Change Sponsors whom I have worked with over the years have also demonstrated. It’s the ability to not only empathize with their employees but to truly love and appreciate those who show up at work and willingly contribute to the bottom line every day regardless of their job title. That kind of dedication on the part of employees doesn’t just happen.

  • It’s the combined result of choosing a great attitude and feeling like your work has meaning.
  • It can also vanish over time if it is not appreciated.
  • It is also a deep and often untapped reservoir of individual motivation available to those stewards who choose to leverage it.

Popeyes spreadKnowing how to engage the untapped spirit of your team starts with the personal knowledge that can only be found through empathy. The ability to place oneself in the shoes of another person is a hallmark of servant leadership.

Active, honest empathy is a great tool Change Sponsors can employ to address a glaring risk that many ego-driven executives comfortably leave in their blind spot.

Contrary to the teachings of the “Alpha Lion as Leader Model” textbook, a straightforward admission of mutual interdependence coming from the top of the org chart can actually be the magic potion needed to start building trust throughout your organization.

The Questions We Ask Ourselves Really Matter: Bachelder and her team leveraged this sense of appreciation to get down into the weeds of what really inspires their employees. I’ll paraphrase what it seems the leadership team asked themselves:

“What could we do as a company if we knew what motivated the spirit of each person on our team?

“What if we could leverage that knowledge to bring purpose and meaning to the work of the organization as a whole as well as each individual performer?”

“How could we harness the collective power behind each person’s spirit to do great things together?”

This real-world insight helped them design a huge strategic culture change that eventually turned around what had become a sinking ship. Today, the company is quite successful by all accounts and franchisees report satisfaction levels that would probably make their fast food competitors envious.

Cheryl Bachelder quoteI hope to spend more time on Bachelder’s book and how Popeye’s used a servant leadership approach to fuel their resurgence in a future article.

For now I’d like to leave you with a few challenges as Change Sponsors and Change Agents:

  • As you designed your current changes, how effectively did you engage those who are most impacted?
  • Do you really know what motivates the people most affected by your changes?
  • Can you recall a time when a servant leader showed the kind of personal interest that demonstrated that they actually cared about you as a person? When’s the last time you did that for your folks?
  • How will your team avoid the pitfall of rewarding behaviors that run opposite to what motivates the stakeholders of your change?

Popeyes locationFor more ideas on this topic, check out the Questions for Chatter section below.


Questions for Chatter:

  1. What’s the most honest demonstration of empathy you’ve experienced from a “boss” and how did this interaction help build trust and motivation?
  2. Do you really know what energizes each of your team members? If you think you do, then here’s a test: Write down what you believe are the top 3 motivators and top three de-motivators for each person on your team. Discuss that list with each person to see how close your perception is to their reality. If this exercise scares you, go sit with each person before you make the list and spend a few minutes learning about them by talking directly with them.

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Change Agent Skills, Change Communication, Change Execution, Change Leadership, Stakeholder Readiness, Team Dynamics

About the author

I help people and teams succeed with big changes... never a dull moment!
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