Leaders Should Use “Empathy” Cheat-Sheets, As Long As They Mean It

Dawn Burke Dawn Burke, Good HR

Did you know Trump was in the news? Of course you did. After the Parkland shooting, Trump met with several survivors to talk about the shooting’s impact. Per the Trump playbook, not to miss a photo op, Trump allowed the open discussion to be videoed.  To many viewers’ surprise, something new-and-shiny appeared in the hands of the Commander-In-Chief. They were the crib-notes seen around the world > The “empathy cheat-sheet”.

Upon seeing the cheat-sheet, crowds went wild and not in a good way.  The reminder, “I hear you,” was especially ridiculed because it rang hollow to many.  

Regardless of my feelings about Trump, I think using the sheet was a great move.  As a matter of fact, I have recommended to countless leaders they use notes or cheat-sheets when handling difficult conversations with team members.  Very often I have seen the unexpected happen where leaders needed to have serious conversations they weren’t prepared for. For instance, the time a leader had to explain to his team why the FBI came to take another team member away, or the time an anonymous hacktivist sent a threatening note (with the requisite Guy Fawkes “Anonymous” logo) to an entire department.  And how about the time a team member’s son was killed instantly in a car crash and was notified at work? Or, more regularly, cheat-sheet notes were used to help leaders with coaching conversations or terminations.

Here is the truth: More often than not, leaders are inexperienced, hate conflict, are nervous, or, frankly, unprepared.  In these cases, I not only suggested they use a cheat-sheet, including empathy-notes, but I required it. I also required the leader role-play with me several times before the event.

In addition, I thought having the reminder, “I hear you,” in their notes was critical.  That phrase is a great reminder for leaders to actually listen and validate they have heard important thoughts.

Some leaders won’t listen to you. In my case, the only pushback I received on this practice was from an empathy-less executive with a great deal of power.  When he had to terminate someone he preferred the coward’s “shock-and-awe” approach. No warning, no role-play, just in-and-out, “you’re fired”, now here is HR to go over paperwork. Half the time HR found out about the termination a few hours before the event. The outcome: every one of this person’s direct reports worked in fear, never knowing if the hammer was going to fall on them.

In Trump’s case, I applaud the smart, courageous person on his team who convinced him to use a helpful tool in an unimaginable situation.  A situation that demanded empathy. Trump’s reputation is perceived to typically follow the CEO’s playbook above – so congrats to that courageous advisor.

Here is the caveat to all the leaders who struggle with showing empathy or vulnerability.  If you use a cheat-sheet, you must mean what you say. You must have the verbiage sound somewhat like you.  Also, you must fall into the category of “I actually have empathy, I just don’t know how to verbalize it”.  If you say a bunch of gobbledygook that is not true, you may as well use the “CEO shock-and-awe” technique. Here is where Trump may run into trouble.

So, the jury is still out on if this new Trump play will work in the long run.  But for now, I say thumbs-up to the cheat-sheet method.