Why Great Leadership Requires Empathy

Often misinterpreted, or undervalued as a ‘soft skill’, empathy can be the deciding factor between adequate and outstanding leadership.

What does it take to lead?

Delegation? Communication? Strategic vision? As a Manager or Director, you’re tasked with getting the best from your team; even if you’re only in charge of a small department, your responsibilities will ask you to deliver commercially, whilst maintaining a happy, motivated workforce.

There are a number of good leaders in management today; hopefully you’ve worked with some, perhaps, even, you are one. But, how many great leaders do you know? And what, indeed, marks the difference? Should we measure top quality leadership on its triumphs; via profit margins and productivity gains? You could, but this would only be part of the picture.

It may come as a surprise to you, that: "nearly 90% of the difference between outstanding and average leaders is attributable to emotional factors”. ‘Soft skills’ are invaluable within leadership, and — as we’ll see — may only become more crucial in years to come. Emotional Intelligence, and in particular empathy, can elevate you and your team, from good to great.

What is empathy? And how do we notice it in ourselves and others?

Empathy is often misunderstood. Ask around the office what ‘being empathetic’ means, and you’re likely to get a range of answers back, including a few confusing empathy with sympathy.

Psychology Today defines empathy as:The experience of understanding another person's thoughts, feelings, and condition from his or her point of view, rather than from one's own.”

And in this way, it is separate from sympathy. In the case of a friend’s personal loss, sympathy would spur us to send a “With Condolences…” card. Empathy, however, asks us to almost feel what they are experiencing, and how their pain could be alleviated. We may choose to take some time off work, and sit by our friend’s side, through their grief, or step in to cook meals, sort the laundry, or drive their kids to school.

If you’ve ever acknowledged the need to “walk a mile in another’s shoes” to better understand their perspective, then you have practiced empathy. And the word ‘practice’ is an important one, because empathy can be taught, and learned, and developed. Some individuals are born with more empathetic tendencies — perhaps those who lean towards ‘Feeling’ versus ‘Thinking’ in Myers Briggs profiling — yet you don’t need to consider yourself a “people person” to demonstrate the trait.

To expand on this, psychologists Daniel Goleman and Paul Ekman view empathy in three categories:

  • Cognitive empathy: by understanding how a person thinks and feels, we become better communicators, relaying information in a way that connects with the other person
  • Emotional empathy: by sharing the feelings of another, we can build and nurture emotional connections
  • Compassionate empathy: by going beyond understanding others and sharing their experiences, we look to take action, and help however we can.

According to Goleman and Ekman, each of these work together; many examples of how, why and when can be drawn from everyday life. Pause for a moment to consider the last opportunity you had to show empathy; perhaps a friend called you, looking for support on a sensitive subject? Or, maybe someone undercut you on the freeway, or barged past you on a busy train platform? How did you respond? Did you try to make the situation about you, rather than considering what it must be like for them?

Truth be told, we could probably all do with flexing our empathy more often. But what does empathy look like in the workplace? And to what level are we empathetic employees, managers and leaders?

Empathy in leadership: why is it important?

Recent research from DDI found that empathy is a “critical driver of overall [management] performance” and yet only “40% of frontline leaders” were “proficient or strong in empathy”. What’s more, 92% of employees said they would be more likely to stay in their job, if their bosses would show greater empathy.

This highlights a very significant dissonance between what’s needed from today’s leaders, and what teams are getting from them. Ineffective leaders — who fail to connect with, or inspire, their teams — drain companies of thousands of dollars in opportunity cost and lost profits. Quite shockingly, underperforming managers make up half of organizational talent, according to a report from 2010. So, chances are, your business is affected.

Empathy may be the missing puzzle piece in your organization; it increases trust, motivates employees and delivers commercial results.

“Essentially empathy is a neutral data gathering tool that enables you to understand the human environment within which you are operating in business and therefore make better predictions, craft better tactics, inspire loyalty and communicate clearly.”

There was once a time where new and prospective managers were made to shadow each of a business’ departments, to get a better understanding of the ins and outs of their whole team’s employment experience. Whilst this worked on a practical level — it always pays to understand exactly what you’re asking someone to do, when you commission a marketing audit, for example — it risked placing too much importance on understanding the job role, not the individual who performs it.

Empathy isn’t about knowing a colleague’s job spec inside out, it’s about remembering the unique family dynamics, or personal backstory, which may (without intention) be brought to their desk each morning. And empathy can be delivered in how you communicate with, and manage your, employees. If you are worried that someone’s personal life is affecting their performance at work, an empathetic approach would be to acknowledge (without blame or punishment) their difficulties, listen to them as they tell you how and why it’s disrupting their work and asking how the company (“we”) can respond.

Who do you think employees would rally behind? A manager who’s quick to reprimand and adopts a “my way, or the highway” approach to leadership? Or one who is willing to work with their personnel, to support their necessary styles and requirements?

Neuroscience tells us that the brain is a threat/reward machine; closing down when it senses a threat, and opening up — quite literally, illuminating — at the opportunity for reward. Develop your empathy as a manager, and you’ll notice more opportunities to make tasks intrinsically rewarding for your team. Come down too hard, or fail to understand the true cause behind an employee’s poor performance, and they may learn to live in fear of your lead. Empathetic leaders cultivate a culture of empathy amongst the ranks; it truly is a virtuous cycle, making the workplace more motivating and rewarding for the whole team. But being empathetic doesn’t mean releasing the reins, or forgoing control.

Remember: empathy is part of effective leadership. And leaders must still drive the business forward.

Four ways to be a great, empathetic leader

  1. Consider the team you’re leading

In 2019, it’s possible you lead a workplace with as many as five different generations represented in its workforce. From Traditionalists, to Generation Z, these employees will have different views on employment, and what they need from a manager or fellow-leader. As such, you can certainly use empathy to more effectively manage each of them… but in different ways. If you’re frequently interacting with your company’s Traditionalist Owner, aged 70, how and why you practice empathy with them will be unlike how you manage a Millennial Junior Manager, aged 32. Even Millennials and Gen Z, the future of the workforce, have starkly opposing employment concerns.

Millennials are strongly characterized by their need for purpose and willingness to hop from job to job, in search of it; indeed 43% of Millennials plan to quit their current role in the next two years. If you manage Millennials, how can you use empathy to encourage loyalty and create purpose-driven opportunities?

Gen Z — the generation of recession and demographic shift — place higher importance on financial security than their Millennial elders. Knowing this, how might you motivate your younger team members?

Model empathy to these demographics now, and you’ll be future-proofing the success of your business’ teams for years to come.

  1. Watch your language

As we touched on previously, empathy isn’t about lowering your standards. Nor is it just about giving out warm hugs at the end of a hard day. Referring to empathy as a ‘soft skill’ can be detrimental, as it risks conjuring up the wrong impression. If you’re looking to empathize with an employee's personal situation, don’t allow yourself to consider it “prying”, and certainly avoid this kind of language when modeling your behavior to the team.

As psychiatrist, psychoanalyst and business advisor, Prudy Gourguechon, puts it: “Essentially empathy is a neutral data gathering tool that enables you to understand the human environment within which you are operating in business and therefore make better predictions, craft better tactics, inspire loyalty and communicate clearly.”

Gourguechon’s definition frames empathy for what it is: a highly effective leadership tool.

  1. Start with small changes

Developing empathy as a leader doesn’t happen overnight. But it doesn’t require radical changes to be made to your leadership style or demeanor, either. Set yourself a simple three step challenge: to know more, care more and showcase more in the coming weeks.

Do you know what’s important to each of your team members?

How do you show you care for, and want to support, those who you manage? Maintaining eye contact when they talk, acknowledging their request for extra training, keeping your office door open; these are indeed small things, which make all the difference. And lastly, how effectively do you promote the good work your team puts out there? We know, from Behavioral Economics, how important recognition and reward is for motivation. Illustrate you understand their need for acknowledgement, and give them their chance to shine.

  1. Recognize that with every yin, there is a yang: a leader can be too empathetic

Overdose on empathy and expect your decision-making to suffer, as a result of leading only with the heart. This may mean the loss of big-picture thinking, or long-term strategic vision. Either way, it wouldn’t be good.

Whilst you can learn to develop empathy — through active listening, and pausing to reconsider an automatic response — you should also learn to control it. For the success of your business, and your own wellbeing, a great leader needs to know how and when to turn it off.

In a nutshell...

Empathy cannot be undervalued, as a leadership and business tool. Duuoo’s approach to this, revolves around the concept of frequent 1-on-1s that supply managers with questions that inspire meaningful responses. In this way, they learn how to ask the right questions that allow them to learn what their team members care about and how they prefer to work and express themselves.

If you can delegate, communicate and achieve against a long-term strategy, then you’ve got what it takes to be a good leader.

If you can do all this and truly understand the idiosyncratic needs of your team members, well… you’re going to make waves.

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