Developing Empathetic and Professional Employees
When asked what empathetic and professional studio employees look like, Jennifer Chin-Gorner lights up. “Joy!”
“When everyone shows up with integrity, empathy, and their best foot forward, it comes off as joy,” says Jennifer, owner and director of Dance It Up with Music in Hamilton Square, New Jersey. “Even when things don’t go the right way, or there was a crucial conversation that had to happen, they still have joy in their heart.”
That sense of joy (or its obvious lack) can be felt by dancers and families in any dance-studio environment. But “joy” is about more than making your studio a literal happy place: cultivating a caring and compassionate work setting is good for your bottom line. Studio owners who focus on emotional intelligence attract dedicated faculty members, improve staff retention, and boost morale. Work is more fun for everyone when employees feel seen, heard, and supported.
Invest for tomorrow
Simply put, emotional intelligence refers to two related abilities that connect to and compliment each other: the ability to be aware of, modulate, and share your own emotions; and the ability to navigate your relationships with other people using empathy and sound judgment.
Raising levels of EQ in your people and in yourself takes time and effort. If you wait until a crisis arrives, it’s usually too late. Alana Tillim, owner and director of Santa Barbara [California] Dance Arts, focuses on her staff’s professional EQ development throughout the year during meetings as well as “jams,” periodic team events that celebrate business wins.
“We’ll do something really fun like get pedicures, go to lunch, or hit the beach,” Alana says. During these twice- or thrice-yearly retreats, she asks them “what they did well in the last 4 to 6 months,” which can be an uncomfortable question for some staffers to answer at first. In Alana’s experience, that discomfort eventually gives way to positive energy and excitement over each other’s victories. Alana says that regularly refreshing team motivation and camaraderie this way cultivate the ideas of teamwork, collaboration, and celebrating one another’s success, while also staving off toxic tendencies like gossip, selfishness, and simmering anger.
At Dance It Up with Music, Jennifer gave her quarterly performance reviews an empathy-driven makeover. “We call them ‘reflections,’ and they’re conversations driven by guided questions,” she says. Questions include:
- How am I, your supervisor, measuring up?
- Is anything happening that’s concerning you?
- Do you want more coaching or guidance in any area?
- What do you need from me as a leader to make your position more enjoyable?
- What is your 3- to 5-year plan?
- How can I help you continue to grow toward achieving those dreams?
Jennifer says her effort to learn how staffers are feeling at work demands time and organization, but it has paid off in the form of reduced staff turnover.
Walk the walk
Ask any management guru about EQ, and the importance of communication is bound to come up. Workplaces are often burdened by insincerity, rumor spreading, and unaired grievances, so “Never assume that everything is fine,” says Christina Baio-McGlothren, owner and director of Footprints Christian Academy of Dance, Loranger, Louisiana.
It’s easy enough to tell your faculty that they can talk to you about anything. It’s a much taller order to respond with compassion and positivity every time you’re faced with something that’s tough to hear. Christina starts by thanking staff members who bring conflicts to her attention.
“I’ve had staff members come to me with issues in the studio and personal issues,” Christina says. “We work through it together, make an action plan, and then we leave it in the room—my staff knows that, especially if it’s a personal thing. The key is to let your staff know that you are always a solid place where they can come and express anything, with no judgment or retaliation from you.”
For daily interactions, instead of asking “How are you?” and getting a rushed, not-quite-truthful, “Fine,” try posing this question instead: “How is your heart?”
“It’s such an intentional question that it makes people feel seen,” says Jennifer. “They might not open up right away, especially if they’re a new team member, but they know I genuinely want to know how they’re doing as an individual. Even if they don’t want to tell you what’s wrong, they’ll appreciate the question.”
Emotional intelligence also means allowing comfort and familiarity to happen at their own pace, rather than forcing people to immediately spill their guts. Let your staffers know that you’re here for them whenever they are ready.
Dealing with “difficult”
Difficult, demanding parents are a trial, but they can also be a wonderful chance to grow employees’ empathic skills.
Christina’s successful response formula instructs her employees to exercise empathy towards the feeling behind the demand, and then reiterate the rule or policy in a respectful way.
“It’s very easy to just pop back with, ‘Well, that’s how it is!’” Christina says. “But sometimes the best way to help ourselves is to help others. That mom or dad is going through life just like we are.”
Framing a response in terms of choice (i.e. ‘I’m sorry that we can’t offer what you asked for, but you do have the choice of A or B instead’) is crucial since it empowers customers to feel that they have some control over the circumstances that are upsetting them. “When responding to them with their options, you want to do so out of love and care for the student,” Christina adds.
Provided they’re not given too much air time, shared daily frustrations can also act like glue, bonding your team more closely together. “If we can find a moment of levity in the rabid-dog emails, I think that takes a bit of the sting out of it,” Alana says. “Without devolving into full-on talking trash, having a good laugh helps you shake off the craziness of dealing with really demanding parents.”
Just make sure those super-quick venting sessions end with a practical solution or decision.
Growing your studio team’s EQ also requires serious reflection on how you yourself show up as a leader. No one expects you to be perfect all the time, but you should be aware of how your own habits and traits affect your team for better or worse. If you’re unsure how your individual quirks appear in your leadership style, try a personality test, or read a book like The Five Languages of Appreciation in the Workplace.
Jennifer recalls one memorable instance when a young staffer asked if she could miss a mandatory meeting in order to pursue a rare internship opportunity outside the studio. After initially holding firm to a “mandatory is mandatory, zero exceptions” mindset, Jennifer reflected on the deeper values in play. “If I’m telling the team that my job is to help you achieve your life goals, I have to stand by my word,” she realized. “That was the first time I had to go back, apologize, and share a plan for what I’ll do to try to be better.”
Alana celebrates that her type-A way is not the only way. “When I was in my 20s, I used to be really frustrated when people weren’t like me. ‘How come you didn’t read the email?’ ‘Why didn’t you show up 15 minutes early?’” she says. “As I’ve gotten more experience under my belt, I’ve learned to embrace and learn from the people that surround me. It’s about finding the balance between holding people accountable and being flexible.”
Christina’s helped her staff gain emotional acuity by first looking inside herself. “If I could give advice to other studio owners, it would be to really examine yourself and how you handle situations—and not only situations that are studio related,” she says. “Your staff is always watching you, even when you interject a sarcastic comment into a political argument on social media.
“You can’t put out messages saying, ‘We love you! We’re here for you! This is a safe place!’ and then fall into bashing and attacking behind closed doors. At all times, you’re either drawing people in or pushing them away.”