What is empathy? And why is it an essential skill for all leaders?
The definition of leadership is ever-evolving, with old, out-moded ideas of leadership being left to the wayside.
Contrary to the meme of the tough take-no-prisoners boss (think, Devil Wears Prada or The Wolf of Wall Street) a growing body of research is uplifting empathy as an essential quality for good leadership.
To understand the role empathy plays in leadership, it helps to have a clear understanding of what empathy actually is.
More often than not, we tend to confuse empathy with sympathy; that to be empathetic means feeling sorrow for someone else’s misfortune and extending your condolences. For instance, saying “I’m sorry you’re feeling sick.” or “Don’t worry, things will get better.” But empathy goes deeper than this.
What empathy really means is being able to understand and share the feelings of another. It is shown in how much compassion we extend to each other and the level of understanding we have in what another person is experiencing.
(Note: There’s a difference between understanding the feelings of others and understanding what they’re experiencing. We all have different lived experiences and levels of privilege, so it’s impossible to put ourselves exactly in someone else’s shoes, but this doesn’t mean we can’t understand their feelings and emotions. To learn more, check out this great 3-minute video of Dr Brené Brown explaining the difference between the two concepts.)
There are 3 types of empathy
Author and psychologist, Daniel Goleman, goes further to define three different types of empathy, each of which are important for authentic leaders:
1. Cognitive Empathy
Cognitive empathy is the ability to understand how a person feels and what they might be thinking. Cognitive empathy is the imaginative attempt to try and put yourself in someone else’s place, and see their perspective without necessarily engaging with their emotions.
Example: If another leader you know had to fire someone, you might not have the experience to truly empathize emotionally, but you can see that they are feeling stressed and guilty and understand why they would feel this way.
2. Emotional Empathy
Emotional empathy is the ability to feel what another person feels. This type of empathy helps people feel attuned to another person’s emotions. It’s the ability to sense others’ emotions quickly without thinking deeply.
Example: You’ve fired someone before, so you can directly empathize with someone who has also. This is because you have felt the feelings that firing someone can create — immense guilt, grief, and stress.
3. Empathetic Concern
Empathetic concern is the ability to sense what another needs from you. Empathetic concern is an emotional reaction of compassion and concern caused by witnessing someone in need. It’s the type of empathy that moves people to action.
Example: You are a leader within a company going through mass layoffs and feel pain for the circumstances your employees are facing. You conduct one-on-one meetings with your employees, communicate how much you care and advocate for them by getting them severance packages and other benefits such as outplacement services.
These three types of empathy are all essential skills for good leaders. Plus, being proficient in the art of empathy comes with a number of benefits:
- Empathy supports workers to feel safe to share their ideas, opinions and lived experiences with colleagues
- Empathy is an effective tool leaders can use to help realize the full potential of their colleagues and support their professional development
- Empathy supports leaders to develop trusting and rewarding relationships with those they lead
It doesn’t stop there. The future of work is paved with empathy. A 2021 study by Catalyst of over 900 U.S employees found that 61% had leaders that were empathetic, were more likely to be innovative. The study also found that:
- 76% of employees who experienced empathy from their leaders had higher levels of engagement
- 50% of employees with empathetic leaders consider their workplace to be inclusive
- 57% of white women and 62% of women of color said they were unlikely to leave their companies when they felt their life circumstances were respected and valued by their leaders
Now that we have a better understanding of empathy and its role in leadership, let’s dive into five simple ways leaders can practice this essential skill.
#1. Encourage a culture of empathy
Fostering a culture of empathy allows teammates to feel safe and supported while creating the kind of environment where they feel confident sharing their ideas and full set of skills and talents. As a leader of your team or company, you have the opportunity to shape culture and be a role model for how to treat others. Be understanding and patient, and take the time to truly listen to others. Create safe spaces for your colleagues to voice their concerns and share their ideas. This will show your team that you value them and their contributions.
Demonstrating values such as “family first”, transparency, and respect and unity, as well as sharing words of encouragement goes a long way.
“Empathy allows us to aspire to be the leader we want to be: someone who brings out the best in those they lead and rallies them around a shared vision of the future.” — Tanveer Naseer, Keynote Speaker & Leadership Writer
#2. Listen and engage with curiosity
Actively listening to your colleagues' ideas, perspectives and concerns will make you more successful as a leader. (Forbes) By being an attentive, curious listener you’re sending the message to your colleagues that you care about their feelings and situation, and the contributions they bring to the table. This in turn supports your colleagues to feel more motivated and engaged at work.
As a leader, you don’t have to be an expert in mental health to show that you care and are paying attention to those you lead. Checking in, asking questions and creating space for colleagues to safely share is enough to get started. In doing so, you will be able to tailor work assignments to their individual situations, improving worker satisfaction and productivity.
- Show that you’re listening to your colleague by silencing your phone and putting away anything that can distract you from the conversation at hand
- Acknowledge the information you’re receiving with questions like, “You seem concerned about this, can you tell me more?” or “I understand how you are feeling, is there anything I can do to help?”
#3. Prioritize regular bonding time with your team
Your colleagues want to know you care about them. If words of affirmation aren't your strength, opt for acts of service. Perhaps, consider hosting a quarterly lunch at a local restaurant or venue to get to know your team on a human-level or having a virtual coffee hour — this will give you time to bond with your colleagues and show your appreciation.
“Leadership is about empathy. It is about having the ability to relate to and connect with people for the purpose of inspiring and empowering their lives.” — Oprah Winfrey
#4. Involve your team in decision-making
When going through a period of change or deliberation, seek to gain understanding from your team. Talk to them and have them involved in business decisions. Your team members are there to provide their insight, experience and expertise— and are incredible sources of creativity, talent and resilience. Allow them to contribute to the conversation and ensure they feel heard and valued.
“Simply giving employees a sense of agency- a feeling that they are in control, that they have genuine decision-making authority – can radically increase how much energy and focus they bring to their jobs.” — Charles Duhigg, Writer for The New Yorker
#5. Provide your team with ways to develop empathy skills
There are many ways to learn about empathy and how to use it in the workplace. You can provide your team with workshops, programs and training on emotional intelligence. Here are some we recommend here at Inclusivv:
- Harvard University — Emotional Intelligence in Leadership
- LinkedIn Learning — Leading with Emotional Intelligence
- Inclusivv — Team Inclusion & Belonging Membership Journey
It’s only through listening, (really listening), that we can begin to understand others, and become more empathetic leaders. When you view your colleagues through a lens of empathy, you’ll see both the professional value and skills they bring to the organization, and the positive contributions they have on the culture.
“Nothing is more important than empathy for another human being’s suffering. Nothing — not career, not wealth, not intelligence, certainly not status. We have to feel for one another if we’re going to survive with dignity.” — Audrey Hepburn