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Why and how we should put ourselves in our employee's shoes

When I met my adoptive daughter for the first time on an introductory visit, the first thing she did was ask if she could put on my shoes. She then proceeded to walk, well stumble as she wasn’t yet three years old, around in them for the remainder of our time together.

As I look back on this moment it makes me smile, but it also reminds me of the importance of putting ourselves in each other’s shoes. For my daughter, it was for a bit of fun, but I’m sure it was also about getting to know me better through wearing my shoes.

It’s this concept that I’d like to explore in this blog, looking at the benefits of putting ourselves in our employee’s shoes, and some things to keep in mind as we do it.

Let me start by sharing three benefits of putting yourself in your employee’s shoes:

1. Helps you understand

When we understand our employees, we collect information and gain the power to better meet their needs. And in a world where our employee’s needs get more and more diverse and challenging every day, understanding is even more critical now than ever before.

And when I think of this, I immediately think of the show “Undercover Boss”, where senior level executives slip anonymously into lower level jobs at their own company to find out what their employees really do, think, and how they get things done. I love watching this show, seeing how executives truly change as they gain this understanding, and as a result change how they as a leader act, and how their organization is run.

2. Uncovers motivations

If understanding is the first layer of the process, then motivation is the second layer. This is where you not only understand what employees think and want, but you understand the motivations behind them.

There’s a phrase saying “Be kind, for everyone you meet is fighting a battle you know nothing about”. To me this talks about taking the time and putting in the extra effort when you’re in your employee’s shoes to understand their motivations.

For example, a company I spoke with explained that they were disappointed that their workforce was not joining the online exercise and meditation classes they had organized. When taking the time to understand their “battles”, they came to find out that employees were having these with their managers, as they were not supporting this initiative, sending the message that their employees really shouldn’t be taking time away from work for “silly classes”. By understanding this, the HR team could address the problem by helping managers see the benefits of the classes, supporting and encouraging their teams to join in.

3. Shows you care

And finally, putting yourself in your employee’s shoes shows them that you care. I can remember when I worked at a retailer, each year during the busy Christmas season we would all go and help out in the stores. By doing this we showed our employees that we knew how busy it was, and cared enough to come and help them. Simple act, huge impact!

Great, there’s benefits of putting yourself in your employee’s shoes. But since it’s not always easy to do, let me share four tips from lessons I’ve learned over the years:

  • Put on the comfortable AND uncomfortable shoes I’m sure we’d all prefer putting on comfortable shoes, or in the case of our employees, speaking and being with employees who are more cooperative and engaging. But unlike uncomfortable shoes that cause blisters, uncomfortable employees actually give you a better chance of preventing “blisters'' in the design and delivery of your engagement programs. They’re the ones that won’t hesitate in raising those difficult points of views or perspectives, which in the end helps you see a clearer and more well-rounded picture of what’s going on and what to do. So get over your fears, and put them all on.

  • Have others try on the shoes If you’re the only person putting yourself in your employee’s shoes, I see two key problems. First, it gives you only one view, perspective or interpretation of the information. Second, from a buy-in perspective, you’ll only have one person bought into the information and thus doing something with it. So bring others into this important exercise, it’s good for them and for your company.

  • Listen to understand not to respond A common mistake we often make when we’re putting ourselves in other's shoes is to listen to respond, and not to listen to understand. As difficult as it can be, it’s important to enter the situation with no preconceived ideas, open to anything and everything we hear, truly listening and not waiting to jump in with your own ideas and recommendations. It may seem difficult at first, but I’ve found that when I do this it actually frees up more of my mind to focus on the employee, and not on what I’m going to say or how I'll respond.

  • Be empathetic versus sympathetic Another common mistake many of us make when wearing our employee’s shoes is that we’re sympathetic versus empathetic. As Brené Brown explains in this fabulous short video titled “The Power of Empathy”, empathy “fuels connection” and sympathy “drives disconnection”. Since Brené explains it so much better than I could ever do, check out her 2 ½ minute video to hear more on this.

In ending, let me encourage you to put yourself in your employees shoes as a way to truly and genuinely understand, support and care for them. Whether it’s your own version of “Undercover Boss”, running focus groups and/or conducting surveys, find ways to do this and reap the benefits in return.


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