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Joe Davis, a BCG managing director and senior partner, is former head of BCG North America. As regional chair, Joe played an instrumental role in advancing BCG’s diversity, equity, and inclusion agenda, and he led North American offices through the COVID pandemic. He is also a former member of the firm’s Executive and Operating Committees. Joe’s upcoming book, The Generous Leader: 7 Ways to Give of Yourself for Everyone’s Gain, will be published in April 2024.

BCG: How do you, as a leader, demonstrate empathy to your teams?

Joe Davis: One trait that I have developed as a leader is to work hard to understand another’s perspective. What is in their head? What is their perspective, based on what I know of their context? What are they thinking? Why are they thinking it? Where are they coming from? This is, of course, classic perspective-taking. It is generous listening.

It is so ingrained in me that I am now always probing. What’s going on in their world that might be driving their thinking? What does the person know? I also actively look for those who will not agree, who have a different point of view. I invite them into meetings and one-on-ones with me, and I do my best to learn what they know that I do not know. Actively engaging them helps to ensure we all get to the richest possible insight.

Another thing I try to do as an empathetic leader is to be inclusive, and that means including people in meetings who may not be the typical senior teammates one might expect a leader to engage. Instead of inviting just the senior person to the big meetings, I want the team in the meeting because they’re the ones who did much of the work, and they will have unique insights about what is working—and what is not. Some may not always feel comfortable participating because they assume they are too junior to speak up, so I will call on them. It’s a conscious approach, it is a generous approach, to draw out the views of the entire team. It provides people with an opportunity to contribute and allows me to hear a variety of perspectives.

When you include and engage people, you are behaving as an empathetic leader.

Can you name times when the perspective of another truly opened your mind and increased your empathy?

At the start of COVID, when we all started to work remotely, some of our employees were requesting equipment and other types of support, and I didn’t immediately understand the reasons for some of the requests. But a colleague reminded me to think about the situations other people are in. She said, “You have to think about where they’re coming from because your lived experience isn’t their lived experience.”

It was a good wake-up call. I realized that our employees were looking for ways to optimize their remote work experience. We put in place several programs, such as stipends for equipment people could use to work from home.

And I turned up the listening machine during the pandemic. I had town halls and cohort meetings with various groups. I started a “kitchen table,” which was cross cohort and included one person from each office. Every other month or so, we would meet for an hour. We asked people what topics interested them, and then we just would just riff. And I would try to not speak. It wasn’t for me to answer their questions. It was for me to hear the issues.

What common mistakes do leaders make when trying to lead with empathy?

People do not actively listen. They are stuck in their own head and believe they know the answer based on all the analysis, or the data, or their own experiences. They don’t believe there will be enough value in engaging with others.

Leaders need to see individuals as human beings. If you see them as a role, you are not going to engage with them deeply. Why would you? With that attitude, they are just a cog in the wheel to you. Take the time to understand who they are as people, learn what matters to them, discover what motivates them.

Do you have any advice for leaders who are trying to make sure their employees know their feelings and perspectives are valued?

Be inclusive. Ask questions. Be prepared and do the deep thinking.

If you are going to have a meeting with a set of people, or a one-on-one, think about who will be in the room. And then work hard to connect to their mental map. Ask thoughtful questions. “Why do you see it this way?” “Why are you doing it that way?” Ask what is in their experience that informs that thinking.

The other thing is to listen. Listen carefully, listen to learn.

And it’s important to engage the skeptics. If you have an idea or are trying to push something, find the people who do not support it, who say no. Most of the time, they are not blockers or troublemakers; rather, they know something you don’t know about why an idea cannot get done, and you would benefit from their knowledge.

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