It is reassuring that empathy is becoming more widely recognised as important in the field of leadership. It doesn’t seem so long ago that being empathetic was bundled in with ‘all that soft skills stuff’ which is simply something you do in your own time or as an added bonus.
Now, it is common place for big names in leadership like Adam Grant, Steven Bartlett, Brené Brown and Forbes magazine to be regularly showcasing the benefits of empathy to leaders as well as some of the ways to cultivate more empathy.
WHAT DOES EMPATHY MEAN?
Empathy can be a tricky term to explore as it has close cousins:
Empathy vs Sympathy – sympathy is generally feeling sorry for someone else’s situation. This is often based on your own judgement that their situation is negative.
Empathy – being able to take the perspective of another person in order to recognise what they may be feeling and / or thinking.
Empathy vs Compassion – compassion is when you empathise with another person and have the added desire to help them.
WHAT DOES EMPATHY INVOLVE?
Because empathy is about seeing situations from another person’s point of view, this means a number of skills are utilised:
- Pausing – empathy requires that we slow down in our thinking and responses. When we are on our fast, autopilot it is common for us to only consider our own thoughts and feelings.
- Active Listening – giving your full attention to what someone is saying, their tone of voice, body language and even the things that are not being said helps to create a good understanding of the other person’s world.
- Being non-judgemental – this is where a pause comes in handy! When we are listening to someone speak our brains are often busy forming opinions and judgements ‘that must be sad’, ‘I wouldn’t have done it that way’. These judgements can spill into the way we communicate with the other person. It’s impossible to get rid of all of our judgements, but noticing that we are forming them and letting them pass (rather than communicating based on them) helps us stay with the speaker’s message.
- Asking good questions – in order to understand the other person’s perspective and feelings we need to know what it is. Asking open ended questions in a genuinely curious and supportive way encourages people to share with us.
- Cognitive empathy – understanding what someone is thinking or feeling in a rational way.
- Emotional empathy – actually finding yourself feeling what the other person is feeling. This is not always appropriate as it can cause empathy fatigue if you ‘carry’ someone else’s negative emotions.
THE IMPORTANCE OF EMPATHY IN LEADERSHIP
In their book, Primal Leadership, Daniel Goleman, Richard Boyatzis, and Annie McKee argue that
“the fundamental task of leadership is to prime good feeling in those that they lead.”
The evolutionary instinct of humans is to gather in social groups around leaders who are able to make us feel safe and attend to our needs. In modern society we do not have the same survival risks of hunger and attack, so instead our needs are primarily around emotions, feeling valued and having meaning.
They categorise two general categories of leadership which other specific styles may fit into:
Resonant Leadership – when the leader is attuned to the feelings and needs of people in order to move them into a positive direction.
Dissonant Leadership – when the leader is out of touch with people’s feelings and needs and so undermines the emotional foundations that let people shine.
The skill of empathy is the cornerstone of being ‘attuned’ to the feelings and needs of others. Whilst some may argue that it is possible to move people in a positive direction without empathy (perhaps by simply setting goals or providing managerial processes) it is easy to see how understanding your team well allows you help them feel good, motivate them and result in better outcomes.
Research studies also support the idea that empathy improves leadership outcomes.
889 employees were surveyed by Catalyst in order to explore the effects of empathy in the workplace. Individuals were asked to rate their managers / leaders empathy levels alongside answering other questions about their workplace experiences. In summary the study found:
- Empathy boosts engagement – 67% of people with highly empathic managers report often or always being engaged, compared to 24% of people with less empathic managers.
- Empathy increases innovation – 47% of people with highly empathic managers report often or always being innovative at work, compared to only 13% of people with less empathic managers.
- Empathy decreases burnout in women – the organisation found generally high levels of burnout with 60% of staff saying they were experiencing it. Women who had highly empathic managers reported a lower burnout rate of 54% compared to the women with less empathic managers – 63%.
- Respect for life circumstances can support retention – staff in general were asked how much they felt their individual life circumstances were respected. Overall staff with high empathy managers agreed 80% of the time but those with low empathy managers only agreed 39% of the time. This was particularly stark for women and women of colour. Follow up information found that 57% of white women and 62% of women of colour who feel their life circumstances are respected and valued by their company report never or rarely thinking of leaving their organization, compared to 14% and 30% of their counterparts who did not feel respected.
- Empathy supports inclusion – When managers had lower empathy ratings only 9% of women and 22% of men said that they experienced inclusion. When the managers had high empathy ratings 42% of women and 42% of men said they experienced inclusion.
In summary, practicing empathy as a leadership skill has both a moral and a business case:
- Understanding how people feel is a key part of the human experience
- Building cultures of care looks after staff
- Reduced sickness and burnout is financially beneficial for companies
- Empathy helps to retain employees and increase productivity
- Empathic leaders are able to reduce some of the inequalities that are experienced by women and people from minority backgrounds
HOW TO DEVELOP EMPATHY AS A LEADER
Wherever you are currently at, the good news is that you can continue to learn and nurture your empathy skills – and just like any skill, the key is practice.
There’s no hard and fast path to developing empathy, more a buffet of different tools and practices that you can build into your life in order to give your opportunities to work on the different facets of empathy. For example:
- Intentionally practicing active listening
- Reminding yourself to be genuinely curious about others
- Choose to interact with people who have different backgrounds, cultures, perspectives
- Widen the vocabulary you have for emotions
- Use mediation or visualisation to step into someone else’s perspective
- Use media like films and fiction to relate to different characters
- Seek feedback from others on your relationship, approach and understanding
- Listen more, talk less and don’t interrupt
- Practice noticing body language and facial expressions
- Ask open ended questions to invite sharing
- Be fully present when speaking to others – eye contact, no distractions
- Work on your self-awareness – notice your strengths, judgements, challenges and preferences in order to identify how you want to grow.
Practicing empathy ultimately changes the way you show up for others as a leader and means that people around you feel better respected, supported and like they belong. Empathy is a win-win skill that you have the power to keep on nurturing.
The Self Leadership Initiative is a soft skills training provider. If you want support in developing your empathy skills, get in touch to explore bespoke sessions for your needs.