Why empathy is a vital characteristic of leadership

Emotional Intelligence, Leadership Development

Empathy is not always talked about enough as a competency that is at the heart of strong and effective leadership. 

Empathy is about being aware of the feelings and thoughts of others and showing understanding of them, as opposed to just acknowledging them. Brene Brown takes care to distinguish between Empathy and Sympathy and how Empathy, as the ability to “step into someone’s shoes,” can fuel connection while Sympathy, as a tendency to tell someone it will all be ok, drives disconnection. (Brene Brown, 2017, Brené Brown on Empathy)

In our current uncertain times, where a lot of us are having our resilience challenged as we experience more unexpected challenges that can lead to stress, the ability to connect with our teams and colleagues using our skills of empathy can become of greater importance. In a recent interview, Satya Nadella, Microsoft’s HR pioneer of their “Model / Coach / Care” approach, reflects on the statement “Nobody quits companies. They quit managers.”. This kind of caring and connection that empathetic managers can provide is a vital tool in managing retention and maintaining motivated and productive teams. 

But can being an Empathetic Leader support us in delivering more than just understanding, connection or kindness? The value of empathy potentially extends way beyond this. A recent study by Catalyst showed that empathetic leadership contributes to increased productivity, reduced burnout, greater employee engagement, a sense of workplace inclusion and reduced intent to leave. 

Their research also identifies empathy as an important foundation for innovation. Satya Nadella reflects on this more from his own experience working for a company that is constantly driving innovation via new technology. 

“To me, what I have sort of come to realize, what is the most innate in all of us is that ability to be able to put ourselves in other people’s shoes and see the world the way they see it. That’s empathy. That’s at the heart of design thinking. When we say innovation is all about meeting unmet, unarticulated, needs of the marketplace, it’s ultimately the unmet and articulated needs of people, and organisations that are made up of people. And you need to have deep empathy. So I would say the source of all innovation is what is the most humane quality that we all have, which is empathy.”

Empathy is one of those “right brain” skills that can be perceived as a “soft skill” or even as a weakness, but in fact is a vital part of leadership effectiveness and business performance. 

So how can we develop our Empathy. Here are 5 Cognomie tips for becoming more Empathetic.  

Listen to feel. Quite often we don’t really listen to what people are saying. We hear words. But we don’t really feel their meaning. By listening actively we can show people that their experience is heard and is valid.

Take personal interest. Sometimes empathy can be as simple as checking in with people, finding out about their lives and how they’re dealing with all the stuff that’s going on around them. Find ways to reach out from your role as a leader. Check in with some of the quieter people in your team. Remember what people have going on and check back with them. Reach out. 

Don’t judge. Other people’s feelings aren’t something to agree or disagree with. They are a way to understand who they are and how they experience and express the world. Set judgement or analysis aside and see listening as a chance to see new perspectives. 

Empathise don’t sympathise. If you’ve not already viewed it, find some time to watch the Brene Brown video referenced above also. It provides some really memorable examples of how being sympathetic is about trying to say “you’ll be ok” so the problem goes away and being empathetic is about simply being with someone as they are feeling something. It might be your role as a leader to go away and “solve something”. But that comes later. That’s not empathy. The empathy part is listening and being present. 

Practice. Some people are more instinctively empathetic than others. But none of us suddenly hone our empathy capabilities overnight. Being empathetic is a process of becoming, not a sudden switch to flip. A bit like going to the gym it can sometimes be about simply making space in our day to make sure we have time to connect, engage and listen to the people around us. And realising that developing this skill might make all of us more innovative and more productive. 






by | 18 Jan 2022

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