Dominice LaPorte Of Mather: 5 Ways Empathy Will Affect Your Leadership

An Interview With Cynthia Corsetti

Build consensus and collaborate. It is much easier to find common ground by putting yourself in other shoes and understanding a different perspective. You may change your view. You may produce a better outcome. Empathy is helpful in conflict resolution as each party strives to understand history and perspective better.

Empathy, the ability to understand and share the feelings of another, is increasingly recognized as a pivotal leadership trait. In an ever-evolving business landscape, leaders who exhibit genuine empathy are better equipped to connect, inspire, and drive their teams towards success. But how exactly does empathy shape leadership dynamics? How can it be harnessed to foster stronger relationships, improved decision-making, and a more inclusive work environment? As part of this series, we had the pleasure of interviewing Domince LaPorte.

Dominice LaPorte, Senior Vice President of Human Resources for Mather, is responsible for developing and implementing all elements of the organization’s HR strategies and programs and serves as a strategic business partner working closely with Mather’s leadership. She oversees Mather’s culture initiatives and diversity, equity, and inclusion (DEI) program and supports the evolution of Mather’s Leadership Development and Management Essentials Programs. Dominice has more than 30 years of experience in human resources. Her most recent role before joining Mather was Vice President, Business Human Resources for Endeavor Health (formerly NorthShore — Edward-Elmhurst Health), where she oversaw people strategies for six hospitals with 17,000 employees. She has a master’s degree in organizational development from Benedictine University and is a Senior Certified Professional with the Society for Human Resources Professionals. Dominice Ages Well by connecting with friends and family, biking outdoors, and learning about history.

Thank you so much for joining us in this interview series. Before we dive into our discussion about empathy, our readers would love to “get to know you” a bit better. Can you share with us the backstory about what brought you to your specific career path?

After I graduated from college, I worked as a customer service representative. The company’s president noted that my customers were delighted with my action orientation, problem-solving focus, and relationship-building skills. He asked me to step into a position in Human Resources and treat his employees like I treat his customers. I said yes and never looked back.

Human Resources is about providing value to the organization and its customers through its most important resource: people. Throughout my career, I’ve tried to improve employees’ lives and add value in recruitment, training, organizational development, operations, compensation, and employee relations to become a well-rounded human resources business partner and leader.

I prioritized raising my children for several years and worked as a part-time consultant. When I decided to return to full-time work, I encountered barriers, including bias. I returned to the workforce in a position well below my historical pay and skillset. The experience humbled and motivated me. I knew I still had a lot to learn and offer. A fantastic leader who was early in her career took a chance on me and inspired me to be a leader who does the same for others. Expanding my scope, pushing outside of my comfort zone, and taking career risks led me to my current position, where I have the privilege of leading the top-notch Human Resources experience center as Senior Vice President at Mather.

Can you share the most interesting story that happened to you since you started your career?

When I reflect on my career, the stories I find most interesting are ones about personal and organizational transformations. Such transformation occurred every day while working in healthcare during the pandemic years. I was awestruck to witness caregivers responding to the rapidly changing dynamics and prioritizing patients’ health. I will never forget when I pitched in to clean patient rooms because we were short-staffed. I walked in the shoes of environmental services and quickly learned to appreciate the hard-working team on a whole new level. I am grateful to all who endured on the frontline during COVID. We are a kinder, more empathetic workplace because of the pandemic. We realized that caring for our employees’ mental health had to be a top priority. It’s a welcome transformation that changed lives for the better.

What do you think makes your company stand out? Can you share a story?

Mather has a mission that inspires and sets us apart. We are go-getters, difference-makers, and life-changers, creating Ways to Age Well. We are so proud to have recently opened our newest Life Plan Community, called The Mather (in Tysons, VA), it is a forward-thinking wellness destination for those 62 and better with exceptional programs, services, and amenities. We are bold disruptors with a mindset for what’s next and a vision to change the way society views aging. Our culture and IRBI (Inclusive, Resilient, Bold, Impactful) Team Member Lounges (named after our organizational values) reflect our commitment to Be NextraordinaryTM and transcend the ordinary!

You are a successful business leader. Which three-character traits do you think were most instrumental to your success? Can you please share a story or example for each?

Work ethic. I come from a hard-working family. As a student, I learned that if I worked hard, I could earn good grades. My work ethic shows when I use my energy to give back to my community through volunteering. Even when faced with barriers and moments of self-doubt, I don’t give up. I’m all in, and it’s been critical to my success.

Self-awareness. My work is all about relationships. There is a strong connection between understanding myself and the ability to understand others. Daily reflection helps me spot my feelings, work through them, and see how they appear in relationships. Self-regulation or controlling my feelings to be available to others at the moment, makes me a better listener and collaborator.

Compassion. Four members of my immediate family passed away over a short period of time. It changed how I lead and live. As the saying goes, everyone is fighting a battle you know nothing about. I remember this and try to be kind and understanding, especially when things are most challenging. Being compassionate aligns with my values and I have been able to work for organizations that share the value. Being an authentic leader matters to me.

Leadership often entails making difficult decisions or hard choices between two apparently good paths. Can you share a story with us about a hard decision or choice you had to make as a leader? I’m curious to understand how these challenges have shaped your leadership.

I’ve managed several workforce reductions in my career. Eliminating positions and impacting lives is never easy. Each decision affects the person losing their job, their co-workers who may experience survivor guilt, the leader who must conduct a difficult conversation, HR professionals who help all involved with the loss, and the employee’s family. If you fail to make tough decisions, the entire organization, and the community it serves suffer. You could eliminate several positions to continue to achieve your mission or close your business, and everyone would lose their jobs.

How you terminate a team member makes all the difference. Be mindful of the setting, timing, and what is happening at work and home, and use caring language. Offer employee assistance services. Check-in frequently with anyone involved in the process to offer support. Communicate thoughtfully, paying close attention to being as transparent and respectful as possible. Focus on change management and transitions. Be empathetic at every step of the way by anticipating what it may be like to hear and process the news.

Teams that emerge from a challenge together grow closer. A strong support system makes that possible. The leader can set the tone, demonstrate compassion and empathy, and ask how everyone is doing. With this example, team members will look out for each other and create a safe and supportive environment that brings out the best in everyone.

Ok, thank you for that. Let’s now jump to the primary focus of our interview. Let’s begin with a basic definition so that all of us are on the same page. How do you define empathy in a leadership context, and why do you believe it’s a vital trait for leaders to possess in today’s work environment?

I’m a student of Brene Brown. She defines empathy as a way to connect to the emotion another person is experiencing. It is not a requirement that we have experienced the same situation the other person is going through. Being willing and able to see the world through the eyes of another and walking in their shoes is essential in today’s work environment. Work and life are much more integrated than they were years ago. Today’s workforce wants to be their authentic self everywhere and always. Empathy is essential.

Can you share a personal experience where showing empathy as a leader significantly impacted a situation or relationship in your organization?

I had a team member working long hours and carrying a heavy load at home, and we were concerned about her wellbeing. After listening to the employee, we arranged for time off immediately. We took care of everything on her calendar for the next week, notified the team about the plans, and made it happen. The employee returned to work with significantly improved mental health. Moreover, while the team did not know any specifics, they were glad to help and liked being a part of an organization that showed empathy and compassion. The quick action also helped her family.

The biggest pitfall I see is when a leader judges another person’s pain or challenge and discounts the experience. Comments like “I don’t understand why you’re so upset” or “I’ve been through far worse” invalidate their experience or make them feel wrong. Team members lose respect for their leader, and trust is diminished.

How do empathetic leaders strike a balance between understanding their team’s feelings and making tough decisions that might not be universally popular?

If you make listening to perspectives a practice, team members appreciate the opportunity to be heard. The other important part is communicating decisions with intentionality. Outline the problem, acknowledge different perspectives and ways to approach it, and explain the rationale for the decision.

Empathetic leaders recognize that every decision (or failure to decide) sends a message. For example, performance management and corrective action can take time because we have a careful and caring approach to improvement. Unknown to others, we are demonstrating compassion and support to the individual in need. Others would want the same steps to be taken for them if they put themselves in the shoes of another. We can’t always provide the details that would make it easier to understand. Still, with consistent and steady empathetic leadership, team members may begin to trust the process (and the leader).

How would you differentiate between empathy and sympathy in leadership? Why is it important for leaders to distinguish between the two?

Sympathy is feeling bad or pity for another. Sometimes it comes across as condescending. When a leader does not try to go beyond sympathy to understand what a team member is going through, a team member may shut down and become distrustful. Empathetic leadership is more likely to create psychological safety and grow trust.

What are some practical strategies or exercises that leaders can employ to cultivate and enhance their empathetic skills?

There are many things you can do to build the empathy muscle. Push yourself outside your comfort zone, learn something new, travel to a new place, and experience an unusual environment. Examine your biases and cultivate curiosity. Join the board that serves the most vulnerable. I am on board at Kenneth Young Center for Mental Health, and it has opened my eyes to the widespread need for mental health services in our communities and workforce.

If you are a parent, focus on cultivating empathy in your children. When my children were young, I focused on this as a development area and strengthened my empathy muscle in the process.

For me, the best way to enhance empathetic skills is through reflection. Think back on the interactions you’ve had each day using a different lens. Don’t think about it from your perspective. Consider how your actions and words may have landed with another based on their position, place, challenges, and life experiences. It is a powerful exercise; with time, it helps you proactively think about others and effortlessly be empathetic.

How can empathy help leaders navigate the complexities of leading diverse teams and ensure inclusivity?

When we are empathetic, we work to suspend judgment and accept others just as they are. We are open to the possibility that we’ve had very different life experiences. Leaders can create a psychologically safe space for honest conversations where teams can get to know each other, appreciate what matters most to each person, and validate experiences. Equally important, leaders can see policies, practices, and behaviors through the lens of others and work to affect change for a more inclusive culture.

Empathetic leadership is one way to combat racism, homophobia, sexism, xenophobia, ableism, and other forms of intolerance. To facilitate change, I allocate time to talk with colleagues, peers, friends, and family to learn how they feel about their experiences and current events. By being empathetic, we can be more than just an ally. We can actively commit to unlearning biased ways of thinking and behaving. Empathic awareness is recognizing stereotypes, prejudice, and discrimination that people from marginalized groups experience, as well as the interpersonal, institutional, and systemic oppression they endure.

The best thing we can do when leading diverse teams is to listen. When someone decides to share their story with you, remember this is their story, not anyone else’s. Every story is unique. It’s not easy, but I try not to compare shared stories to something I’ve heard before or my life experience.

Leveraging empathy with diverse teams is more than perspective-taking or momentarily putting ourselves — with our own life experiences — in someone else’s shoes. For deeper appreciation, it’s about understanding how colleagues with unique life experiences came to be in their shoes and the journey they’ve traveled in those shoes.

Based on your experience can you please share “5 Ways Empathy Will Affect Your Leadership”?

If you build the empathy muscle, you will see your leadership change in many ways, some very subtle. As a leader, you will affect your team (and their families, by extension) and the organizational culture. Empathy is a foundation of a healthy culture, where diversity, equity, and inclusion are valued and celebrated.

1 . Create a psychologically safe environment. The workplace can be a tense and unsafe place for some. Use empathy to de-escalate and put others at ease. Ask yourself, how might I feel or respond if I traded places with another? Acknowledge another’s experience and feelings to replace fear and discomfort with trust.

2 . Build consensus and collaborate. It is much easier to find common ground by putting yourself in other shoes and understanding a different perspective. You may change your view. You may produce a better outcome. Empathy is helpful in conflict resolution as each party strives to understand history and perspective better.

3. Be authentic. When someone faces a difficult day (e.g., the first Mother’s Day after the loss of their mother or the anniversary of something important), I have reached out to let them know I am thinking about them. I have found it to open lines of communication. Very often, they reciprocate similar sentiments. It feels good to give and to receive.

4 . Attract and retain diverse talent. So many of us want more meaningful work experiences post-pandemic. Empathy goes beyond a surface-level understanding to foster collaboration and create deeper connections. Teams and individuals look for this; when they find it, they want to keep it. More colleagues are asking specific interview questions to uncover empathy in candidates.

5. Be a role model for positive mental health. When I take the time to listen to others and validate emotions and experiences, I am reminded to do the same for myself. I cannot effectively help others if I routinely and harshly judge myself. My actions can serve as a model of empathy for self and others.

Are there potential pitfalls or challenges associated with being an empathetic leader? How can these be addressed?

While embracing empathy, it is equally essential for leaders to establish and communicate their boundaries. Being empathic also means having empathy for yourself. It would help if you knew how to separate yourself from others — by unplugging, saying no, taking breaks, communicating your availability, and caring for your physical and mental health.

Off-topic, but I’m curious. As someone steering the ship, what thoughts or concerns often keep you awake at night? How do those thoughts influence your daily decision-making process?

I lose sleep worrying about the mental health of our team members. A lot is asked of them at work and in life; I’m concerned about their well-being. I try to be mindful of the number of assignments, better ways to prioritize, and how best to support them. For the organization, I try to think of how I can positively influence to reduce burnout and foster sincere appreciation, so every team member feels great about coming to work each day.

You are a person of great influence. If you could start a movement that would bring the most amount of good to the most amount of people, what would that be? You never know what your idea can trigger. 🙂

I think of empathy as an antidote — an agent that negates the effect of a poison or toxin. We should look to empathy as an antidote for many of today’s most challenging problems (or poisons). The Fentanyl epidemic, racism, mental health crisis, conflicts and wars, and the division in politics would all benefit from greater empathy. We were taught to ask the five Ws: who, what, when, where, and why. We could add the question: what’s it like to be you and walk in your shoes?

How can our readers further follow you online?

Thank you for the time you spent sharing these fantastic insights. We wish you continued success in your great work!

About the Interviewer: Cynthia Corsetti is an esteemed executive coach with over two decades in corporate leadership and 11 years in executive coaching. Author of the upcoming book, “Dark Drivers,” she guides high-performing professionals and Fortune 500 firms to recognize and manage underlying influences affecting their leadership. Beyond individual coaching, Cynthia offers a 6-month executive transition program and partners with organizations to nurture the next wave of leadership excellence.