A first-time manager’s guide to empathetic leadership

It’s a journey.
It’s a journey.
Image: REUTERS/Will Gray
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On June 15, 2020, midway through Pride Month, the US Supreme Court ruled that the 1964 Civil Rights Act protects lesbian, gay, and transgender people from workplace discrimination based on sex. For LGBTQ(IA+) employees around the country, this landmark decision allows them to embrace who they are at work in a new way—for many, it may allow them to express their identity fully for the first time.

Pride Month 2020 is now over, but the implications of this decision are just beginning. I know they are for me: I’m a queer first-time manager, and I’ve been thinking a lot recently about how my queer identity relates to the ways I work and manage my team.

I joined Grammarly a little more than four years ago, and it is the first professional situation in which I’ve felt comfortable being out at work. That has a lot to do with the company’s strong sense of empathy. Being able to trust in that has helped me feel empowered to ask hard questions, confront difficult challenges, and be vulnerable from time to time.

It means I get to think not just about what a manager should do—but what I as a manager could do. Me, with all my weird. And I’ve realized that lessons I’ve learned from the queer community not only have helped me personally: they’ve helped me lead with sensitivity and care, which has been especially critical in the middle of a pandemic and the transition to an all-remote environment. There’s so much that’s precarious and unsure. What can a relatively new manager (or even a more experienced manager) do to support their team?

Be inclusive in your communication style

I’ve spent much of my career promoting inclusion in the workplace for people of all backgrounds and experiences. So when I started managing a team, I set out to ensure everyone was treated as they wanted. But when we all started working remotely, I realized I sometimes missed the mark.

I thrive on in-person communication (hello, extrovert here), so when we all began sheltering in place, I initially sought to organize lots of video chats. It turned out these were sometimes non-inclusive. Caregivers felt increased stress to be present on camera while being pressed by other responsibilities. Introverts on my team became overwhelmed. As someone who knows what it feels like to be different, it was painful to realize that I had alienated people.

But this was also an opportunity. I started to document everything I could, in order to support team members in their ability to work according to their own needs and schedules. Part of this effort to write more things down and rely less on real-time communication involved being intentional in my own writing. I wanted to make sure I was conveying information clearly and effectively. To support this effort, I always think of my SATs:

  • Situation: Why am I writing this? What’s the one thing my recipient must know after reading my message?
  • Audience: Who am I writing to? What frame of mind are they likely to be in when they read it? How can I frame the message in the best possible way?
  • Timing: When do I plan to send this message? Is it going to be too early or late to catch folks’ attention? How long will it take them to read it?

Listen actively and make space for feelings

The past few months have been full of confusion and upheaval. And when humans go through challenging, disheartening, or overwhelming times, they’re going to have feelings. The data supports this sentiment shift—Grammarly’s own tone detector has seen a 75% drop in writing with an optimistic tone among millions of people.

Feelings at work can be tricky. People might ask whether a professional context is right for expressing yourself. I believe the answer is a resounding yes.

One reason I’m so willing to focus on “the feels” is because I’ve seen and felt so much wonderful emotional support in the queer community, including queer friends and colleagues. It’s important to me to pass that support on to those I manage. They should feel psychologically safe and able to expect emotional support when and how they need it.

Here are a few guidelines I try to follow:

  • Create the space that’s right for each individual: Some people are comfortable talking in a group setting while others prefer sharing in a one-on-one meeting. Each team member will have slightly different needs.
  • Listen actively: I try to allow someone to finish their point before asking follow-up questions. Feelings aren’t always expressed in linear ways; sometimes a person will need to talk for a while to even understand what they are trying to express.
  • Don’t try to solve everything: Sometimes I can help with problems—which is awesome—but often there are circumstances outside my control. When this happens, I like to set an expectation upfront that I may not be able to fix the problem but am here to listen.

Feed yourself first

No disrespect to Simon Sinek, but I no longer agree that “leaders eat last.”

When I started managing a larger team, I worked on being as selfless as possible. I’d respond to every Slack message immediately, take every call, and say yes to every ask.

Pretty soon I realized that I couldn’t be all things to all people. So I slowed down. I took breaks. I said no. I even took a little time off.

Something I’ve learned from queer activists (especially queer activists of color) is to stay conscious of emotional exhaustion that leads to burnout. If you run out of steam and are heading toward collapse, you can’t support or lead anyone.

I’ve reassessed what it means to take care of myself. Here are a few of my takeaways:

  • You are your most important teammate: Don’t forget that when you’re leading a team, you are also on the team. If you’re always making yourself the exception to what you’re telling others, you’re not leading effectively.
  • Set healthy boundaries: Even though many of us are still working from our kitchens and living rooms, it’s crucial to have boundaries. Be clear about your goals. Take breaks during the day. Take time off.
  • Seek community: If you’ve ever felt isolated, alienated, or alone, you know how taxing and debilitating it is. Don’t let yourself get there—find others with similar issues and concerns. In the queer community, there are great networking events and conferences, such as Lesbians Who Tech + Allies, and virtual communities, such as the Out In Tech Slack. In your own workplace, you might find community with other managers, colleagues who share your identity, or just people you connect with socially.
  • Pace yourself: Don’t try to tackle everything at once. Think about your work as a marathon, not a sprint. Take care of yourself and understand that some minor battles will be lost to make major progress.

Let empathy be your guide

Empathy is a skill every manager should have in their toolbox—and it shouldn’t be taken for granted. I know that, in my case, nothing mentioned in this article would be possible without an empathetic work culture that promotes openness to differing perspectives.

That’s not to say that every company and organization doesn’t have further work to do to be more inclusive and diverse. The recent Supreme Court decision shows us how far we’ve come in expanding rights and protections—while also reminding us how far we still have to go in creating an open and just workplace for all.

A manager can be part of making further progress. My experience as a queer person has taught me what it’s like to have your perspective considered at your request—to ask others to practice empathy. From that, I’ve learned to be ready to ask questions, and not to assume I’m necessarily going to like the answers. Am I always willing to embrace my own discomfort, understand my own limitations, and change my tactics when necessary? Am I ready for my team to teach me?

I’m still early in my time in management, and I’m far from done learning how to be better at it. But as I progress, these are some questions I’m trying to ask and some principles I’m trying to follow. I hope some might help others as they consider how to best serve their team—and themselves.