Have you ever put yourself in someone else’s shoes, trying to understand what they’re going through? That’s empathy. That’s making an effort to be a kind and helpful human being.
But some leaders of companies and other organizations think showing empathy makes them look soft and weakens their leadership. In the eyes of many employees, however, empathy has become a more important leadership skill in recent years, especially in the wake of the pandemic and the stress it caused workers. A recent survey of employees by Ernst & Young found empathetic leadership boosts morale, inspires positive change within the workplace, fosters mutual respect between employees and leaders, increases productivity among employees, and reduces employee turnover.
Some CEOs and other leaders still neglect empathy for various reasons, even though research has often pointed to empathy as a key driver of business success. But contrary to what many believe, empathy doesn’t mean always being nice, and it is not about hand-holding or making excuses. It is possible to be empathetic while still making tough decisions, such as firing employees. Exceptional leaders are skilled at balancing empathy and decisiveness.
When the topic of empathy comes up, it’s common for leaders to think, “Now you expect me to care about everyone – what they’re doing, how they’re feeling. I don’t have time for that.” But the truth is, caring is not required. Understanding is. When you start with understanding, you might begin to care about the person’s plight.
Empathy is crucial in leadership at all levels because it enables leaders to understand and relate to their team members, foster an environment of trust and open communication, and increase a sense of worth for the work culture.
Building your empathy muscle
As you embark on a journey to build your empathy muscle, I encourage you to reflect on what empathy means to you. What has been your experience with empathy, how does empathy make you feel, and what benefits and/or negative effects do you find? Write about your experiences. When you review your thoughts, I hope you consider all the times you have tried to get someone else to understand your point of view. Those moments highlight the value we place on empathy when we are the beneficiaries.
Think about your own values, and identify which ones align with empathy and which ones don’t. Practicing empathy is a way to live out your own values. Once you’ve identified the source of your views on empathy, dig a little deeper and unpack why that person, action, or experience informed you the way it did. Again, write down your thoughts. As you get more comfortable with the process, start the empathy conversation with others. Share what you’ve come to learn about your own ideas and practices of empathy, and encourage them to share theirs.
From all that you know now about empathy, do you believe you deserve to receive it? Do you believe everyone deserves to receive it? I hope the answer is yes, because if you believe that everyone deserves empathy, you also believe everyone is deserving of dignity, and that is where it all must begin. When you consciously look at your world, your circle of concern, for ways to offer empathy, it’s important to remind yourself that not everyone has what you have. We don’t all have the privilege of the same level of support, health, education, or wealth to meet basic human needs. When you lead with that knowledge, you will understand things differently.
Empathetic leadership strategies
As business leaders face challenges this year, such as market uncertainty, recession fears, and workplace stability, empathy will be an essential leadership skill. Here are three strategies to implement empathetic leadership:
- Communicate your vision. By communicating your vision, you provide everyone in the organization with a roadmap on how they are going to be part of something grand and exciting. Talk honestly with your leadership team about the concept of empathy and how you see it fitting into the company culture. Invite them to provide honest feedback.
Most significant vision and mission statements represent a rallying cry for a departure from business as usual. They require people to think and act differently. For that reason, underneath the excitement will be apprehension, anxiety, and fear of the unknown. Share with your leadership team that this is an opportunity for you all to learn together and that mistakes will be made.
- Listen emphatically. Leading with empathy is about listening for understanding and strategically acting on that understanding. But many people struggle to listen. We are often distracted, thinking about how we will respond to what is being said. We also prioritize our level of listening depending on who the speaker is.
Spend a day paying attention to who you listen to and how you listen to them. Make a list of the people you listened to. Then categorize how you listened to each of those individuals. Mark I for intently, D for disinterest, and T for those you tuned out. Encourage your leadership team to participate in this exercise. Have the patience to hear people out.
- Coach and develop. What if you are so focused on results that you have no time for long-term development of people’s empathy muscles? Make an intentional plan. When empathetic leaders possess strategic agility, they can accurately anticipate future consequences and trends related to people development. They understand that failing to provide targeted and differentiated professional development has consequences.
Empathy isn’t developed quickly. The average person can develop empathy within three to five years. My question is, what does it cost you to put it off for another year? After all, a leader’s job is to convince people on the way up to get out of their comfort zone and accept opportunities to build their empathy muscle. Help those you lead expand their perspectives. Give people who have the potential for increased responsibilities some assignments that take them outside their typical functions. Volunteer them for cross-boundary task forces, or have them attend meetings that include people from other areas.
Empathy is an essential core value for any workplace, but without leadership exemplifying it, tension and unhappiness reign. When leaders set positive examples for their teams by showing empathy in their daily interactions, everyone benefits and the business thrives.
Dr. Nicole Price (https://drnicoleprice.com) is the Forbes Books author of Spark The Heart: Engineering Empathy In Your Organization. She also is the CEO of Lively Paradox, a professional coaching business that focuses on practicing empathy in leadership. Dr. Price was originally trained as an engineer, and her technical background enhances her objective approach to solving process problems and helping people focus on solutions. Follow Dr. Price on Twitter: @DrNicolePrice.