Understanding other people's emotions is a key skill in the workplace. In fact, researchers have found that empathy tops the list as the most critical driver of overall performance. It helps us to make better decisions, inspire others, cultivate meaningful connections, and build more productive teams.
When leaders establish an ability to truly understand what another person is experiencing from their point of view, collaboration and cooperation occur. This leads to higher revenues, a fulfilling workplace culture, and longevity within a business or organization.
In this article, we explore what it really means to show empathy. We'll look at how a few simple actions can help us to be more empathetic as leaders.
What Does it Mean to be an Empathetic Leader?
According to Daniel Goleman, the author of Working with Emotional Intelligence:
Empathy is awareness of others’ feelings, needs and concerns. At a deeper level, it is about defining, understanding, and reacting to the concerns and needs that underlie others’ emotional responses and reactions.
Each of these actions affects the other. For instance, if you can better understand your colleague’s feelings, they will respond to it. They will feel heard, seen, and connected to your mission. You will then uncover a symbiotic ability to grow as an organization by building relationships, collaborating, and sharing ideas.
When we can authentically connect with ourselves and those around us on a basic, emotional level one will see actual results in the success of their organization.
Potential Issues With Empathy
An empathetic leader is undoubtedly a gift to work with. Employees experience growth, kindness, and understanding when operating under someone who takes the time to understand them.
However, being “too nice” can have detrimental effects on productivity. Too much empathy may make it overly complicated for some leaders to express constructive feedback.
While kindness and understanding are crucial attributes to an effective leader, it is also important to be sure to be well-rounded in your ability to display emotional intelligence. At times, according to an article from Harvard Business Review, even leaders with high levels of empathy can fall short.
The idea here is balance. One must assess their emotional intelligence (EQ) and determine the areas that need work.
An Example of An Empathetic Leader
One of the best examples of an empathetic leader is Herb Kelleher, the founder, and CEO of Southwest Airlines. He said, “The business of people is people.” He understood that he had to put his employees first to be successful.
Kelleher took the time to visit front gate employees and the mechanics on the tarmac. He made room for the feelings of his employees and created a culture of satisfied workers. This then trickled down into the experience his customers had on Southwest flights.
Southwest Airlines turned a profit for forty-seven consecutive years of its fifty-year history. 2019 was their first year of losses. That’s pretty amazing and clearly shows the value of empathy.
An Example of A Not-So Empathetic Leader
You probably already know all about Elizabeth Holmes, the former CEO of Theranos. She is now a convicted white-collar criminal, and what’s worse, the blood testing technology she claimed would change lives actually put people in danger. Some were told they were not pregnant when they were, others misdiagnosed and gravely affected because of it.
The sheer lack of empathy for not only employees of her company, but for the public-at-large not only closed her business but landed her in jail. This is the opposite of effective, empathetic leadership.
How Empathetic Are You?
If you want to be a leader that cultivates strong relationships and authentic connections, you must first assess where you’re at in your ability to be empathetic.
According to a study completed by a leadership development organization, only 40 percent of the leaders assessed were found to be “proficient” or “strong” in empathy.
Therefore, it's important to first think about your skills and determine where you need to develop. There are a couple ways to go about determining your level of empathy.
In his book, Emotional Intelligence for the Modern Leader, Conners provides an excellent exercise for you to try:
Ask five to ten members of your organization that you respect and trust to answer the questions below with genuine responses. Take the time to assess and deeply consider their responses.
How well do I listen?
Do I take the time to understand other people’s positions?
Do you feel I have invested in others’ personal and professional development?
Do I listen without trying to fix the problem?
Am I sensitive, compassionate, and caring toward the people I lead?
With these responses, you can develop a better understanding of your strengths and weaknesses in terms of empathy as a leader.
Are You Skilled, Unskilled, Or Overuse the Skill of Empathy?
The following are some examples of how you may be adept, falling short, or over-the-top in your empathic ability. Take the time to evaluate and determine where you may need work.
Cold and lacking connection.
Manipulates colleagues to get what they want.
They do not check in with employees or take the time to understand them by asking personal questions.
They do not seek or respond to feedback from their team.
Speaks words of understanding and affirmation.
Delivers constructive feedback in a respectful manner.
Asks questions about employees' personal life.
Check in with employees to see how they enjoy their work and if there is a place they may fit better in the company.
Crying with a coworker that has an issue.
Afraid to give constructive feedback for fear of hurting a coworker.
Putting company goals aside for a team member’s feelings.
Oversharing personal or professional information.
How Can You Develop Empathy at Work?
Practice the following techniques frequently and they will start to become second nature.
Give Your Full Attention
Be present with your team members and take the time to really listen to them. Ask relevant questions and show them that you are genuinely interested in what they’re saying. When speaking with team members try your best to tune into emotional cues. Pay attention to non-verbal communication and picking up subtle cues.
There's no one "right way" to demonstrate your empathy. It will depend on the situation and the individual team member. Remember, empathy is about what the other person wants and needs, so any action you take or suggest must benefit them.
For example, you may:
Reward and praise people for their strengths and accomplishments.
Provide constructive feedback designed to focus on how to improve.
Provide mentoring and coaching to help others to develop to their full potential.
Step back and adopt or appreciate someone else’s perspective.
Authenticity is empathetic because when you’re authentic and vulnerable in sharing your own journey, you can help others see that they’re doing okay. Your own lessons learned will help your team members relate to you. And by being transparent in your failures and your successes, you’re lifting others up to know that they're allowed to make mistakes, too. And, they’ll be more likely to come to you for advice or help—because they know you’re understanding and empathetic.
If you want to be a change-maker and an inspiring leader, you will succeed by leading with empathy. It is a cornerstone to your development. Assessing where you are at incorporating aspects of emotional intelligence takes discipline, feedback, and understanding oneself (and others), to accomplish this. Do not be afraid to go deep.
Be grateful for your employees. Uplift them. Help them to grow alongside you. Here, you will see a shared interest in joining you to make your organization the best it can be.
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