The Essence of Empathy in Leadership

When it comes to emerging trends in leadership, empathy is front and center. It has been named “the hottest trend in leadership” and is even determined to be the number one leadership skill by the popular global leadership consulting firm, Development Dimensions International.

Empathy is the ability to experience and relate to the thoughts, emotions or experiences of others. Empathetic leadership acknowledges the emotions and diverse experiences that people carry, boiling down to the art of perspective.

Let us not be confused. Empathy, often confused as being synonymous with sympathy, goes beyond expressing support and showing compassion. Demonstrating empathy involves a deeper level of understanding and letting that understanding shape our approach to both verbal and nonverbal interactions.

So what is it about this skill that has major corporations like Ford Motors investing in this new approach to leadership training?

According to the Center for Creative Leadership, the nature of leadership is shifting away from an “iron fist” approach and moving to favor more interpersonal practices. As leaders, we know increasing diversity should be a priority in the workplace; the modern workforce is composed of diverse backgrounds, experiences and perspectives. This calls for an active approach to our leadership in which we acknowledge these differences to unify the team.

What are the implications of empathy for leaders?

First, let’s break down the common misconception that empathy is merely a soft-skill. Empathy is more than an isolated interpersonal skill; empathy enables us to better utilize all of our other skills, driving strategies for success across the organization.

We know the crucial role communication plays in progressing the mission of any organization. In terms of empathy, it’s all about emotional intelligence and understanding how to appropriately and effectively communicate with one another. As leaders, we have the power to use this emotional intelligence to foster empathy and create a company culture that promotes meaningful communication.

An empathetic leader understands that everyone is impacted by the things that happen to and around them. Furthermore, they take it one step further, using their understanding to more appropriately interact with others.

Consider this:

Founders lay the groundwork for company culture, but the employees are the ones who continue to build upon the culture and carry it out. By approaching our leadership duties with empathy, we will retain strong employees who want to do the work to move our mission forward.

“How you treat your employees today will have more impact on your brand in future years than any amount of advertising, any amount of anything you literally could do.”

When it comes to our employees, engaging in empathy and practicing perspective is just as important. Robin Reed, CEO of the Black Chamber of Arizona, strongly believes in the power of considering things from perspectives other than our own, noting “it changes everything” especially in business. The reality is the majority of today’s workforce cares more about the culture of a company and how it feels to work for them over other traditional factors such as hours and salary.

In an interview with Boston University’s WBUR, Mark Cuban adds to the conversation of empathy and workplace culture. He further explains how empathy can be a pivotal tool when leading through times of crisis stating, “How you treat your employees today will have more impact on your brand in future years than any amount of advertising, any amount of anything you literally could do.”

It’s not just about communication and culture. While empathy has long been overlooked as an indicator of performance, research completed by the CCL shows otherwise. The study involving leaders across 38 countries determined empathy is positively correlated with job performance.

“Empathy is a place where every leader should live a little more.”

This is tried and true for president of Dignity Health Foundation East Valley, Aaron Peace. He found that adding a sense of understanding and perspective in the workplace helped him foster a healthy and productive culture. Peace encourages the use of empathy in leadership, stating it is “a place where every leader should live a little more.”

After learning the value of empathy through wanting others to understand what he was going through, Peace made it his mission to embed empathy into his approach of leadership. “I try to be authentic as much as possible when it comes to empathy and understanding what people are going through,” he explains.

What is the outcome? Using his ability to understand others has increased the effectiveness and ease of communicating with his team.

Let’s take a step back for a moment; forget about leadership trends and benefits for businesses. The benefits of empathy surpass the walls of any organization.

If our goal as leaders is to influence others, it only makes sense that we establish a sense of understanding for who they are and where they are coming from first. And it’s not just a one-time thing either. Empathy is a skill we can practice daily and, like other skills, we can get better at it.

So how can we practice and promote empathy?

Be an active listener.

Listening isn’t enough. We aim to understand what is being said. We let others know their feelings and perspectives are being listened to and understood. Engaging in active listening means providing verbal and nonverbal feedback. This might take the form of asking questions or making eye contact. Regardless of how you are actively listening, it is imperative to respond authentically.

 Read between the lines.

Sometimes listening is not enough. We might not always be told the full story or told anything at all. This is where nonverbal tells come into play. Pay careful attention to the actions and emotions of others, keeping an eye out for signs of stress or discontent.

Practice perspective.

We should avoid seeing things as black and white. We need to let go of right or wrong. The reality is, the world is very grey. When leading a team of diverse individuals, we strive to listen to and understand perspectives that differ from our own. Even in instances where we disagree, it is important we try to understand and proceed without being dismissive. Approaching conflict with perspective will help resolve conflict peacefully.

Ask questions.

Everyone comes with a set of unique needs and, despite our leadership roles and titles, we don’t know or have all the answers. It’s okay to ask for clarification to better help others. Questions like “How can I help?” show that we recognize their emotions and are making an attempt to understand their perspective.

Check in.

Collaboration is essential to any team, but it doesn’t always happen as naturally as we would hope. We know trust and rapport are not established overnight. Keeping this in mind, we must actively and purposefully engage with others on our team. After a problem is ‘solved,’ consider following up in a day or two just to check in. Empathic leadership is ongoing.

Remember, we set the tone for how others will be treated throughout our organizations.

At the end of the day, it comes down to paying heed to diverse perspectives, thinking before we speak or act, and considering the implications our words or actions will have on others. By engaging in empathic practices, such as working toward gaining a better understanding of each member of our team or actively building a more supportive culture in the workplace, we can help drive long-lasting change and continuing success.

We remain committed to understanding our environment and the people who are in it. We note the longevity of any organization’s success is dependent on leaders who express empathetic adaptability, responding to the constant changes both within and outside the walls of our business.

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