Progressive organisations are starting to look beyond traditional strategies for leadership development. This is to ensure they create leaders who can effectively motivate, boost performance and improve business.
It is advisable for business leaders and managers alike to assess what their strongest skills are, and what skills are required to take their leadership abilities to the next level.
This article will highlight why empathy is unquestionably one of the required skills.
What is empathy and why is it important?
Empathy is the ability to “place yourself in another person’s shoes” – so you can understand their perspective, thought-process and even their reality. More than just a buzzword, empathy is a vital component of successful leadership, and ultimately a healthy bottom line.
Empathy is a key skill for progressive leaders who want to get the best out of their people. To be an empathetic leader, you should think beyond yourself and always consider the needs and desires of your people. After all, they are your most valuable asset.
But does empathy affect performance?
To better understand how leaders can be effective in their jobs, The Center for Creative Leadership conducted a study to address whether empathy is a necessary skill for effective leadership. Their results highlight that it is: “Empathy is positively related to job performance. Managers who show more empathy toward direct reports are viewed as better performers in their job by their bosses.”
The study clearly suggests that empathy is a vital leadership trait, which in turn will benefit the organisation and all its people.
Can empathy be learned?
Naturally, some people can inherently demonstrate empathy better than others. They will have an advantage over their peers when it comes to being an effective motivator and an understanding leader.
This begs the question, can empathy be taught? The answer is yes, it absolutely can.
Empathy is a skill and all skills can be developed. With enough time and guidance, business leaders can grow their empathy skills. This can be done through training, coaching and highlighting key development opportunities. By exposing leaders to every area of the business and customer experience, they will gain a deeper insight and understanding into everyone’s roles and business challenges.
When leaders demonstrate empathy, it can have a “domino effect”, whereby everyone copies their behaviour. This will create a culture of empathy and understanding; improving recruitment, retention and employee wellbeing, whilst reducing turnover.
Business leaders can effectively demonstrate empathy in the following ways:
1 Ask and reflect
The most straightforward way to gauge how someone is feeling is to ask them.
When you are unsure how someone is feeling, or want to better understand their reality, it is always advisable to ask. Strangely, this technique is often overlooked and it can lead to business leaders being out-of-touch with their people and making assumptions. This is not advisable.
For example, some leaders may promote a theatre trip as an incentive. This could be a deterrent for some people and actually demotivate them. It is better practice to ask everyone and gain an understanding of what drives them.
2 Listen to understand
It is key to listen with the intention of understanding, not simply to respond and provide instructions. This will ensure you can fully focus on the person you are speaking to, instead of feeling pressured to provide instructions or offer a response.
To help you become a better listener, it is vital to use active listening techniques:
- Unplug and be present – Tapping away at your phone and checking emails instead of listening is sadly commonplace in some offices. Not only is it rude, but it also highlights that you aren’t interested in learning and listening. Fully commit to each communication and offer your full attention.
- Show you’re listening – Demonstrate open body language, hold eye contact, nod and respond with short verbal comments (“yes”, “of course”, “oh no”), smile and use facial gestures that mirror the sentiment.
- Mirror the speaker – Reflect the actions and emotions of the individual you’re talking with, to show that you understand their meaning. You can do this by studying their body language as well as their words. This will make people feel comfortable and encourage them to speak more openly with you.
- Provide Feedback – Reflect on what has been said and paraphrase at appropriate intervals (“My understanding is…” or “Sounds like she thinks…”) Ask questions and summarise certain points to demonstrate you understand.
- Don’t judge or interrupt – Avoid interjections and counter arguments. Let the speaker finish before you have your say.
- Respond appropriately – Be honest and open with your feedback. Voice your opinions with consideration and respect.
3 Recognise and validate people’s perspectives
Recognising other people’s perspectives is essential if you want to empathise with their views.
Some business leaders will act like their own perspective is everyone else’s reality. They will fail to consider other people’s realities, which can lead to poor business decisions and ultimately disengaged employees.
Put your viewpoint to one side and learn what everyone else’s. You can’t solve every problem, or know every answer. When you begin to understand how people feel, it is important to acknowledge it as their reality. You may not agree with what is being said, but you must accept and consider it.
4 Use employee engagement surveys to gather instant feedback
Most leaders don’t have the time to speak to everyone on a regular basis. Even if they do, some people may not feel comfortable giving feedback or voicing their opinions in person. This is often due to fear of repercussions or nerves.
By sending out regular pulse surveys, you can gather real-time feedback from your people. This will allow you to understand the sentiment of your workforce and create tailored action plans that will align with their feedback. By communicating the results and plans with everyone, it will highlight that you understand how your people feel, what is working for them, what could be improved, and your desire to prioritise the things that will have the biggest positive impact.
5 Be authentic
Empathy is not something that can be faked or forced. For this reason, it is a difficult, but effective leadership trait.
To be an empathetic leader you must begin to forge strong relationships with your people. Don’t shy away from showing emotion or vulnerability – these are human traits that everyone can relate to. Demonstrating authenticity will make people feel comfortable when communicating with you. Many people will follow suit and demonstrate honesty and vulnerability too.
6 Demonstrate self-awareness
It can be difficult to relate to your workers and their views sometimes. Often you won’t be able to fully understand their experiences, so it is vital to focus on connecting with the emotion they are displaying.
Try and place yourself in their position. Find out what he/she is feeling and then compare it to a time when you have felt the same way. For instance, “How did I feel when my boss asked me similar questions?” “What was my first year as a line manager like?” “Would I like being asked that question when I was in his/her position?”
Once you develop a strong awareness of your own experiences and learn how to tap into them when considering someone else’s experiences – you will fully understand what is being said.
7 Never stop learning
Be open to learning at all times. We can all learn something from people at all levels. When we stop learning, we stop progressing – this is detrimental for any business leader.
Speak to your people and ask them for their unique insights and opinions. By creating a learning culture where people at all levels seek advice, you will break down stigmas that leaders know best, whilst gaining an understanding of your people’s views and realities.
Developing an empathetic approach is one of the most effective people skills a business leader can learn. When you fully understand your people and their views, you will have a workforce who will trust and respect you. This will improve engagement, productivity and revenue.