How To Coach A Manager To Be More Empathetic

Madhura Dudhgaonkar

Senior Director - Machine Learning at Workday



I was looking to hire someone for a management position. One of the candidates was a really strong engineer, a high-achiever who was very result-oriented. I could tell from the interview that the manager mainly used their rational, cognitive mind, but did not use empathy and active-listening for decision-making. This is common for many engineers, as it can be a useful trait in their day-to-day work. However, one of the things that people sometimes forget in management is that many decisions are not black and white - they're shades of grey. Managers need to understand rationally what's going on, as well as use empathy and active-listening to draw on all three centers to make wholesome decisions - their brain (logic), body(somatic signals/gut) and Heart (Feelings).

Actions taken

I hired the candidate, but was aware that he would initially struggle with the team he was being given, as they were used to a more nurturing/empathetic management style. However, as he was very result-oriented he was going to be great at execution and I knew he could handle conflict if necessary. I prepped the manager by letting him know that his team was used to a very different management style and that he had a much stronger personality than what they had dealt with previously. I made sure to stay close to the team and a month after the manager first started I had a checkpoint with him. I gathered input from all of his team, and asked them open-ended questions about how they were going, in order to ensure that I wasn't influencing their responses. It was clear that the team was struggling. The new manager's style was significantly different from what the team was used to, and it was so bad that the manager thought he would have to leave. I spent the next few months giving the manager very specific coaching guidance around the behaviors he needed to shift in order to build trust with his team without changing who he is. At first, he was very defensive and kept pointing to how the team was spoilt and were not making sense. I shared the feedback his earlier manager had given him about the same issue and questioned him about why so many people were saying that there was an issue, and he eventually realized he needed to adjust to succeed in this team. I asked him to work on being more empathetic and be an active listener. I also asked him to giving his team autonomy and shifting his behavior from "telling them what to do" to "asking questions to help them realize answers on their own." I supported him through his progress by checking in on a regular basis and doing skip 1-1s to continue circling feedback on his progress. His shift has been successful, and his behavior has changed over the last few months. I've also checked in with the team who have reported a positive change. It was a rough journey for everyone involved, but the whole team is in a better shape after this experience.

Lessons learned

I knew when I was hiring this manager that I would have to do a bit of work in order to help the manager succeed. It's important to assess what you are and are not getting when you're recruiting so that you can decide whether the strengths someone has are worth taking a chance on. If I was faced with this situation again, I would spend more time with the manager's team, sharing his strengths and what he brings to the table. This would prevent the team from only seeing the manager's dark side. I focussed mainly on how the manager should adapt, but if I had focussed on the team to shade light on the strengths he brought in, we would have gotten to a positive place more rapidly.

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Madhura Dudhgaonkar

Senior Director - Machine Learning at Workday

Leadership DevelopmentCommunicationOrganizational StrategyDecision MakingCulture Development

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