We take a look at some of the fundamentals of empathetic leadership along with 4 tips for growing this vital skill.
Empathy is no longer seen as just a useful soft skill that some leaders might have. It is one of the key leadership traits that can maximise both the productivity and the wellbeing of teams.
For their white paper “Empathy in the Workplace” the Centre for Creative Leadership (CCL) analysed almost 7,000 responses from managers in 38 countries and found that “the ability to understand what others are feeling is a skill that clearly contributes to effective leadership”. They found that those managers who were rated as empathetic by the people they manage, were also valued as high performers by their own boss.
The value of empathy at work
Empathy may fall into the soft skill category, but it is no longer seen as simply a desirable in the workplace. In the light of the great resignation and as organisations look beyond their traditional strategies for achieving success, empathetic leadership is becoming an essential management trait.
As in personal relationships, showing empathy at work can improve connection and trust with others with the result of more effective communication, feelings of safety, improved relationships, increased productivity, and a positive team culture.
Individual and collective experiences of working through the Covid pandemic may have brought the topic to the fore. However, many who have now experienced it, either as a provider or receiver, are hoping that compassionate management is here to stay with all the benefits it brings.
In this context, empathy has long been considered a valuable management tool. Back in 2015 when we wrote a series of articles on resilience skills, the importance of demonstrating empathy in the workplace was included with some tips for providing an empathetic response.
What is empathetic leadership?
Empathetic leadership displays the ability to see things from another’s perspective, understanding their needs, being aware of their thoughts and feelings, with the ability to react compassionately. Those being managed in such a way feel supported and that their views are both valued and respected.
Recognising the difference between empathy and sympathy
Although the two words are often used interchangeably, there is an important difference. Whilst sympathy invokes a feeling of pity or compassion for another’s situation with no real understanding of what it is like to be in their position; empathy is putting yourself in another’s shoes so to speak, with the ability to experience and understand their emotions and viewpoint as reflected in the Alfred Adler quote:
“Empathy is … seeing with the eyes of another, listening with the ears of another and feeling with the heart of another.”
Some fundamentals of empathetic leadership
- It is most impactful when it comes right from the top.
- Being humble – quietening one’s own ego and acknowledging that we cannot and do not know everything, can permit feelings of empathy to evolve towards others' points of view and perspectives. Interestingly, studies have found that leaders who display humbleness may also engender greater engagement and job satisfaction amongst their employees.
- Adopting a growth rather than a fixed mindset. A growth mindset helps us to be open to and to embrace change and growth, with the belief that both yourself and others can develop and adapt over time and become more empathetic to others’ ideas and viewpoints.
- The ability to acknowledge and overcome personal biases.
- A willingness to understand how another is experiencing a situation without assuming or passing judgement.
- Instinctively thinking positively about those you manage (see tip 1 below).
- Actively listening to those that you lead.
- Showing an interest in the lives of the members of your team.
- Establishing a caring, supportive culture which validates every individual.
4 Tips for those looking to lead empathetically
- Think the best, not the worst
The power of positive thinking is well known but often goes out of the window when things go wrong at work with a looming deadline at stake. However, taking time to calmly get to the bottom of why a failure happened with an employee can help them to reflect, learn from the mistake and ensure it isn’t repeated in the future. It can also encourage a growth mindset culture; increasing trust, honesty, and helping team members to become more comfortable with feelings of uncertainty.
- Slow down and focus
A failure to listen properly has been found in surveys to be the most common complaint employees have about their boss. Be aware that our brains work faster at processing words than the speed at which they come out of the average speaker’s mouth. This means there is time for our brain to deviate and think about other things, resulting in only hearing part of what we’re being told. Practice active listening skills and, when you’re truly listening to someone’s story, park your own judgements and perspectives on things. Keep in mind the well-known Epictetus quote, “we have two ears and one mouth so that we can listen twice as much as we speak”
- Consider the impact of written communications
Emails may have their benefits but can often come over as cold and impersonal, leaving the recipient wasting valuable time and energy worrying if they’ve done something wrong. This could easily be alleviated by including a short, empathetic sentence such as “How are you?” or “Do pass on any feedback you have about ...”
Setting clear expectations about responses is also hugely welcomed. So, perhaps, having a one-liner to add to any emails sent in the evening stating that working at this time of day suits you, but reiterating there is no expectation for a response until the recipient is next working.
- Practise acts of kindness
Recognising team members’ achievements and acknowledging the milestones they reach can help employees to feel included, respected and appreciated. They have a motivating effect. People remember when they’ve been treated with kindness and it can be contagious. The result can be acts of kindness being practised on other colleagues and the development of a kindness culture, with the associated benefits to wellbeing in the workplace for all.
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