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Empathy in Leadership – 10 Reasons Why It Matters

  Apr 21st, 2014   -     Professional Development   -  

Originally written by Traveer Naseer: Empathy in Leadership – 10 Reasons Why It Matters

Last week I had the distinct pleasure of co-hosting the weekly #LeadFromWithin tweetchat with Lolly Daskal. The subject of my chat was “The Role of Empathy in Leadership” and I have to say I was gratified by both the level of participation and depth of contributions/insights which arose during the discussion (click here to download a PDF copy of the chat transcript).

Although I’ve written previously about the importance of empathy in leadership, I want to use last week’s talk as an opportunity to delve into this issue more, sharing some of the points I provided during the talk, as well as some of the insights proffered by the various participants. Here are the ten questions I asked participants as we discussed the role empathy plays in leadership.

1. What does empathy mean?

“Empathy means I demonstrate concern for & listen to reach understanding of others ideas & feelings.” – @scedmonds

In order to appreciate the role empathy plays in leadership, we first need to have a clear understanding of what empathy means. Most times, we tend to confuse empathy with sympathy; that to be empathetic means agreeing or relating to the feelings another person has regarding a given situation or individual.

However, what empathy really means is being able to understand the needs of others. It means that you’re aware of their feelings and how it impacts their perception. It doesn’t mean you have to agree with how they see things; rather, being empathetic means that you’re willing and able to appreciate what the other person is going through.

2. Why does it matter for us to understand the needs of others?

“By understanding others we can develop closer relationships.” – @TerriKlass

At first glance, this might seem a tad altruistic, but there are tangible benefits that are derived from making time to understand what those around us need, as opposed to what we perceive is required. Indeed, leaders who take the time to understand the needs of their employees can provide them with the support they require to press ahead, to deal with the challenges or issues that might be holding them back from achieving their goals.

By understanding and providing employees with what they need to succeed, leaders can build a sense of trust, thereby strengthening the relationships they have with their employees and consequently, the relationships employees have with one another, leading to greater collaboration and improved productivity.

3. What traits/behaviours distinguish someone as empathetic?

“Empathy requires listening, nonjudgmentalism, openness, emotional intelligence.” – @StrategicMonk

I’ve written in a number of pieces about the importance of listening in leadership. And how effective or intentional we are in our desire to listen to what others are saying is a key trait among empathetic individuals.

Indeed, empathetic people listen attentively to what you’re telling them, putting their complete focus on the person in front of them and not getting easily distracted by what’s on their monitor or smartphone. They spend more time listening than talking because their want to understand the difficulties others face, all of which helps to give those around them the feeling of being heard and recognized.

4. Can we learn to be more empathetic or is this an innate trait?

“Empathy is human. We can develop empathy when we focus on others and commit to develop our authentic self.” – @jimweibe

In the discussion that arose over my previous piece on empathy and leadership, I pointed out that contrary to popular belief, humans by nature are not self-centric or concerned only with matters of personal gain. Indeed, recent research into mirror neurons has proven that we’re wired for sociability and attachment to others; in other words, we’re driven to connect and understand those we interact with.

We only need to look at how the whole world not only reacts, but responds to natural disasters like those which struck Haiti and Japan to see that the drive for empathy is an inherent component of humanity.

5. What can we do to become more empathetic?

“Take a personal interest in people. Show people that you care, and genuine curiosity about their lives.” – @LollyDaskal

Given how empathy is a natural part of the human condition, our ability to demonstrate it to those around us is not as difficult as we might think. As mentioned earlier, one key trait of empathetic people is their ability to listen attentively to those around them. One way they do this is by paying more attention to both the verbal and non-verbal cues that are a part of everyday communication.

Making similar efforts will help you shift the focus from the story that’s in your mind to the actual message that’s being presented.

6. What role does empathy play in leadership? Why does it matter?

“When we understand our team we have a better idea of the challenges ahead of us.” – @morrismichellek

Let’s be honest, when it comes to the keys for successful leadership, empathy is rarely included in such a list. However, instilling a sense of empathy in how you lead those under your care offers a number of advantages:

  • Empathy allows us to feel safe with our failures because we won’t simply be blamed for them.
  • It encourages leaders to understand the root cause behind poor performance.
  • Being empathetic allows leaders to help struggling employees improve and excel.
  • Empathy allows leaders to build and develop relationships with those they lead.

7. So why aren’t we being more empathetic at work?

“Empathy takes time, focus, effort. Some ppl focus more on meeting deadlines than on the people who will carry you there.” – @elbiddulph

If it’s part of our make-up to be empathetic and that there are tangible benefits to fostering a sense of empathy within your organization, the question that naturally comes up is why then aren’t leaders taking the lead in making empathy a fixture in today’s business world. The most obvious reason (or excuse) is that the expression or recognition of any type of emotion in the workplace is still regarded as being a form of weakness (the rationale behind the well-worn phrase “it’s nothing personal; it’s just business”)

Of course, as is the case whenever there’s an examination of human interactions, the behaviours are rarely the result of one factor. Instead, it’s often due to a number of causes, which in this case includes:

  • Demonstrating empathy is hard; it’s takes time and effort to demonstrate awareness & understanding.
  • It’s not always easy to understand why an employee thinks or feels the way they do about a situation.
  • It means putting others ahead of yourself which can be a challenge in today’s competitive workplace.
  • Many organizations are focused on achieving goals no matter what the cost to employees.

In trying to address the apparent lack of empathy in today’s workplace, it’s important that we recognize that, much like an organization’s culture, it doesn’t come down to one element, but a series of inter-related behaviours and biases which serve to reinforce how leaders and their team perceive the value of empathy in business.

8. How can leaders encourage a culture of empathy?

“Create an environment were ppl feel it is safe to express their true opinion.” –@DrGregWaddell

One of the responsibilities of leadership is defining the long-term vision you have for the organization and establishing some short-term goals for your employees to attain in order to transform your plans into reality.

However, what distinguishes average to mediocre leaders from those who excel at leading others is how the latter group understands that their focus shouldn’t be simply directed to whether goals are achieved or not. Rather, their focus is also on fulfilling the collective purpose of creating something meaningful.

To accomplish this, leaders need to understand the inner purpose that drives each of their employees and aligning that with their organization’s goals. This requires that leaders be more open about their ideas and thinking and asking their employees about their thoughts on it. By spending more time learning about the needs of their employees, leaders can set the tone and approach taken by their employees to achieve their organization’s goals.

9. How can we use empathy to become a better leader?

“Empathy as a state of mind breeds more listening -> understanding -> leadership!” – @KateNasser

By now it should be pretty clear that empathy plays a critical role in one’s ability to be a successful leader. But for those who might need more convincing, here are some of the ways empathy can help you to become a better leader for your team:

  • You gain a greater awareness of the needs of your employees.
  • Empathy allows you to create an environment of open communication and more effective feedback.
  • It allows us to understand and explore problems employees face and how to help them resolve them.
  • Being empathetic with your employees helps to validate what they’re going through.

10. If leaders could do one thing to create a more empathetic workplace, what would it be?

“Remember that people are not machines. They feel as well as produce.” –@dapancost

“Sawubona” is a Zulu greeting which basically means “we see you”. Now, this is not some variation of the royal usage of “we” in place of “I”. Rather, it’s their way of recognizing that how they understand what they see around them is a reflection of their perception that is derived not only from their own experiences, but from the stories and ideas passed down to them through their family and community.

Similarly, leaders need to remember that how we feel colours our perception of what we see going on around us and consequently, it’s important to understand those feelings so that we can respond and manage them accordingly.

It’s also important that we remind ourselves that the story we tell in our minds is different from the story playing in the minds of  others. It’s only through listening intently to others that we can begin to understand these differences.