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Sheryl Sandberg’s insights into workplace empathy

4 min read


Sheryl Sandberg is best known for being chief operating officer at Facebook and as the author of “Lean In” and founder of the subsequent movement.

On June 3, at 11 a.m., she showed us a side we had not seen as much of before: her human and vulnerable side. Her Facebook post about losing her husband, Dave Goldberg, was one of the most raw, moving and touching pieces of the human experience I have read in a while. Moreso than her book every single leader needs to read this piece on being human. I am inspired to write about her post because so many of us have lost touch with our own humanity and that of others in our workplace. It leaves us disengaged and disconnected from each other and the work we do.

Here are the leadership lessons I took away from her post.

Our leadership and our workplaces need our humanity. Sandberg writes about how uncomfortable it is for many people at work to acknowledge the passing of her husband, to allow themselves to get connected with the grief she’s feeling.  Most of us are afraid to acknowledge emotion in the workplace and most workplace cultures discourage emotional expression. Many of my executive coaching clients fear being judged as lacking “executive presence” or, worse, “being emotional.”

Many of us believe we need to leave our feelings at the door when we enter the workplace. We can’t really leave our feelings at the door.  What happens is that they go underground and affect our behaviors in ways that can derail us. Our discomfort with our own humanity makes our workplaces inhumane and our people disconnected from one another. Our workplaces desperately need people who can bring their hearts to the table while making tough decisions like restructuring organizations and firing people. It is our own ability to be touched and moved that creates a space for cultures where people thrive, engage, connect and innovate.

Life-shaking events happen as part of the human experience. Be kind to yourself and others during these times. Sandberg writes that, until this tragedy, she never really knew what to say to others in need. She would try to reassure them that things would be OK.  In our discomfort with our emotions, we often rush to have others shift their emotions to being happy (and dare I say productive) again. Sometimes, it is wisest to listen with an open heart, be with the person in a shared moment of humanity, and then allow what wants to be expressed from that place of empathy. Often, it is not what we say but the feelings we share that communicate what needs to be communicated.

Choose life and meaning during times of trial. A common part of the human experience is the trials we each face, our personal form of hell during those moments.  None of us are exempt from that, even the most powerful like Sandberg. Her post reminds us that we can choose to be resilient. A big part of that choice is to find something meaningful — a lesson, a purpose, an experience that can be gained and shared from the times of trial that can serve others.

Our vulnerabilities connect us to one another rather than separate us. Most of us are afraid to show any sign of weakness in the workplace. Sandberg’s post has nearly 900,000 Facebook “likes” as of this writing. Her raw sharing of her experience has struck a powerful chord. She realized that to restore the closeness she wanted with her colleagues, she had to let them in, to be more open and vulnerable than she ever wanted to be. Vulnerability is a trait we greatly admire — in others. It is hard to practice, but once we let ourselves get there, we almost always find an opening that creates possibilities that were not available before.

Ms. Sandberg, thank you for sharing your human side with us and creating what I hope will be a path and a movement for us to be more real, more authentic, and more human with each other in our workplaces. A movement for greater authenticity at work is my movement. Thank you for showing us the way. I salute your courage, resilience, and humanity.

Henna Inam is the CEO of Transformational Leadership Inc. and the author of “Wired for Authenticity.” She is a leadership coach, global speaker, and often plays junior philosopher on her Forbes and company blog. Follow Inam on TwitterFacebook or her blog.

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