Leading with Empathy - How it Helps Manage Change, Burnout, and Overall Mental Health

Empathy is a word that gets thrown around a lot in connection with leadership these days. But what does leading with empathy truly mean, especially for leaders in PreSales? Since it’s more important than ever for empathy to be a part of running your team, we had two empathy experts at the recent PreSales Leadership Executive Summit to give us the details:


Eric Rodwell, Director of Sales Engineering at Salesloft

Ashley Gunderson, Group Manager of Solutions Engineering at Blend


What is Empathy?


Eric starts off by giving the dictionary definition of empathy: the ability to understand another person’s thoughts and feelings in a situation from their point of view, not your own. Any discussion also has to include sympathy because these two concepts are often mixed up.


Showing sympathy is noticing that a team member has fallen into a hole, and standing outside of the hole looking down and asking how they’re doing. Empathy is climbing down into the hole with them, understanding what they’re going through, and then helping them out of the hole.


There are three key types of empathy. The first is cognitive - the ability to understand how the other person feels. It’s a good first step but not enough on its own. The second is emotional - connecting with them physically to more deeply sense and feel their emotions. And the final one is compassionate - being spontaneously moved to act to help them.


Why is Empathy Important?


We’re all living in a new normal today. Covid has changed how we work, interact, and even how we live. And it's taken away the control we seek. We’re told to control the controllables, but we cannot control a lot in today’s environment. Things change every single day. We’re being asked to do more with less in our personal and professional lives and haven't learned how to set the right boundaries - and it’s overwhelming.


If we’re single, maybe we don’t have family around and are very isolated. Some people used the office as a community and overnight that was taken away. If we’re married or living with someone, suddenly we’re living on top of each other and the little things get tough. And for those of us with kids, we’re having to juggle multiple priorities - kids were suddenly out of school, they’re learning remotely, and we may have lost childcare. And who has actually taken a real vacation? How we unplug and get away has been really challenging.


The data is overwhelming - because of the pandemic, over 42% of people have had a decrease in their mental health. 67% of people report increased stress levels, and over half report increased anxiety. We’re sad, irritable, and juggling too many responsibilities. We’re burned out and stressed out.


In short, there’s a lot going on. How do we support our team and ourselves?


How to Offer Effective Support


Ashley points out that empathetic leaders lead by example. It’s important to share your goals with your team for leading with empathy - make them explicit and external, and don’t assume that people know what’s behind any changes you make.


She suggests sharing in an upcoming meeting what you’re focusing on as a leader - this is called narrating the change. It makes her feel more genuine and ensures nothing comes out of the blue for her team as a result of this new focus.


You’ll be really surprised how easy it is to disarm difficult situations by taking an empathetic approach. “Talk me through what you’re experiencing here.” Questions like this show you really want to hear where they’re coming from.


Empathy, vulnerability, and psychological safety (feeling safe to share and experiment) all go hand in hand. As SEs, we need to be flexible and shift with the situation. We have to have a safe and inclusive team culture where we can come to learn, to grow, and even to fail. Create an environment where it’s safe to fail, to give feedback, and to engage in healthy debate.


Ask yourself first, if I were in this situation, what would I be feeling? Then you can ask the right question to get to the heart of the situation.


Also take care of yourself and your own wellbeing - what does your company offer to help with this? Make sure you’re showing up in a place where you can support your team, potentially by finding resources that can help you manage your own stress and mental health.


Key Things to Remember


Be proactive in recognizing and addressing signs of burnout. Be curious rather than judgmental. Once you ask a question, shut up and go from there. Truly listen to the team and get a sense of what each team member needs, and then you can lean into that instead of leaping to a (potentially inaccurate) conclusion.


Before you have a conversation you know will be challenging, ask yourself: “What is the most useful thing I can do right now, given the person and context?” As a leader, you know your team members well, so let that knowledge drive how you show up to each person on the team.


And finally, remember that we’re all human. Screen interactions can make it easy to forget everyone’s humanity, and can lead to us thinking of people as resources first. Leaders can also spend too much time creating and crafting the perfect statement when faced with a challenging conversation, but that can sound remote and rehearsed.


Instead, be honest and authentic, which will help you build a real connection based on trust and drive the conversation. Listen as your team members share their struggles, share your concerns as well, and you will create a true bond and build trust together.


As an IC


  • Get to know people - the core of empathy is curiosity
  • Volunteer
  • Stand up for others
  • Read and seek out new perspectives and experiences
  • Acknowledge your biases


As a Team


  • Hold daily/weekly standups to check in
  • Ask everyone how they’re doing - MEPS framework
  • Mental
  • Emotional
  • Physical
  • Spiritual



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The Leadership collective is a group designed for PreSales leaders in a management capacity (Manager+ title) who are looking to network, grow professionally, and actively participate.

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