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Leadership Advisory

Leadership 101: Lead with Empathy

By September 13, 2022September 15th, 2022No Comments
empathy in leadership

Humans, irrespective of where they are and what they do, will interact with one another. It is only natural to have an empathetic outlook. Be it a casual setting or a professional one, a simple act of empathy — knowing why someone is reacting in a certain manner can go a long way. 

Why is empathy an essential quality in leaders?

Leaders are natural communicators, they are responsible for the professional as well as personal well-being of their team members. Oftentimes, sympathy is confused with empathy and used interchangeably. However, sympathy focuses on relating to the feeling, while empathy goes far below the surface to understand that feeling. It doesn’t have to be an agreement with the view of another person, rather it is the willingness to appreciate what they are going through. 

A leader plays multiple roles, one of them being a mentor. As an empathetic leader, it is essential to have the ability to lead while being able to connect and relate with the team members. It is to inspire them and bring out the very best while having and showing a sense of compassion for their situation. By being an empathic leader, one can help build trust and strengthen relationships. Especially in today’s time when employees are taking the path of “quiet quitting”. It is all the more important for leaders to show empathy toward the challenges and issues faced by their team members. 

Is empathy acquired or learnt?

If you were to talk to experts, they’d say that empathy is a learned behaviour although the ability for it is inborn. If looked at from a larger perspective, empathetic capacity needs to be developed. A deep level of understanding and concern is inevitably required to feel for others.

Psychologists call out the secure attachment from our childhood to be of paramount importance in determining the level of empathy. Notably, one’s capacity for empathy considerably varies from one person to another. Empathy isn’t necessarily intuition, rather it is a well-understood analysis of another person’s situation. 

How can leaders build empathy?

Leaders can build empathy in numerous ways. But it all begins with the very essence of having to put oneself in the shoes of another. Often, empathy is regarded as a soft leadership skill when compared to other management skills of a leader like technical prowess and authority. DDI research found that empathy is a “critical driver of overall performance” for management. And it was found that there is a high level of correlation between key management skills such as coaching, engaging and decision making with listening & responding with empathy. Despite all this, the study found that only 40% of frontline leaders dealt with empathy.

Given that the concept can be learnt, what are the best practices to learn and build empathy for leaders: 

Practice self-reflection

In a state of self-awareness, individuals are most aware of their mindset and emotional well-being. It becomes easier to connect with and understand another individual state of mind. But if not, then one’s emotions (often left untapped) can project on another. 

Listen first 

As humans in general or even as leaders, it is our natural tendency to jump to conclusions while listening/ dealing with a problem. Thus, keeping an open mind about the same becomes difficult. When a teammate or another person discusses a topic of concern, hear them out. Give them the benefit of doubt and keep an open mind about their feelings. Listening will help dissect the problem manifolds rather than jumping to instantaneous conclusions. The willingness to help goes a long way even if there is no concrete solution to it. Often, people only wish to be heard.

Use empathy expressions

Listening is not enough unless regular confirmation and affirmation are given to the person in distress. Using empathy statements like “I understand what you are saying and feeling” can deliver a sense of understanding. It will further instil confidence in the mind of the speaker that he/she is being heard. 

A concern for others

Empathy is seldom a surface-level concept. Understanding without being honest will not work. A genuine interest in understanding what others are saying and feeling is crucial. It doesn’t have to be in an uncomfortable manner. Interest in the personal and professional life of a subordinate, co-worker or teammate will ingrain comfort and confidence. An honest interest can go a long way to building empathy in a leader. 

Schedule one-on-one meetings

The best way to practice and show empathy is by having regular conversations and interactions. One-on-one regular meetings with leaders and team members will create avenues to openly talk about their issues and concerns. 

You can, in fact, apply these pointers right here while reading this piece. Answer the following questions to understand where you are mentally and emotionally: 

  1. Breathe in and check on yourself. How are you feeling at this moment? Do you feel relaxed or overwhelmed about yourself and your surroundings?
  2. Based on what you are feeling right now. Is there anything you can change or implement that will alter your feelings? Or is there someone you can talk to about your feelings?

Is empathy the way forward?

Having empathy is one of the most important qualities for leaders of today, but it is still largely understated. Some individuals are naturally gifted at this, and they will have an advantage over others.

Leading empathically at work can create a sense of purpose for employees. Improve the overall work environment, create happier and healthier employees, increase productivity, and improve retention rates. If your company hasn’t started to instil empathy in its leaders, the time is now! The result will be far greater success in almost every aspect of your company.

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