When developing as a leader, the focus is typically on improving skills and qualities to enhance job effectiveness and team running. These leadership values generally are things like creativity, decisiveness, and expertise.
However, in recent years, we are beginning to realize that empathy is one of the most essential leadership qualities. Especially in a hybrid workplace, empathetic management can contribute to connection for an employee base that longs for understanding and deep connection.
Historically, empathy was considered a “soft” leadership skill. Businesses viewed it as something nice to have in a leader but unnecessary. As more research is done, we are beginning to realize just how vital empathy is for effective leadership.
What is Empathy?
Empathy is the ability to understand and share another person's feelings. We use our ability to understand others' situations and perspectives daily. As we navigate our various relationships and daily interactions, we use these skills to interpret and react to social situations.
Being successfully empathetic plays a vital role in emotional intelligence. Empathy goes beyond simply expressing sympathy.
Sympathy is designating feelings of pity for someone’s situation without really understanding them or seeking to help. In contrast, empathy is imagining what they are experiencing and attempting to experience their emotions, ideas, and opinions.
If we only recognize and understand someone's distress but fail to act in assisting, we have only offered sympathy. Instead, empathy lends itself to understanding and action.
Struggles in Defining Empathy in Management
The problem in developing more empathic management is there is no current universally understood definition of empathy in leadership. For example, according to an EY survey, employees described empathy as fairness and transparency. In comparison, other reports frame empathy around mental health support or inclusion.
As we work to create a universal definition of empathy in management, David Rock, co-founder of the NeuroLeadership Institute, argues that we can instead view empathy as compassion.
The Role of Compassion in Empathy
According to the Center for Creative Leadership, “Those skilled in empathy understand a situation from another’s perspective and respond with compassion.” Taking action is compassion.
Compassion is the response to empathy. As you empathize with someone, responding with meaningful action plays a vital role in forming a connection.
And compassion works. Whereas some types of empathy are exhausting due to the cognitive resources needed to see others’ perspectives, compassion benefits both sides. When a leader responds to an employee's distress with meaningful action, both parties receive reward signals.
A manager extending compassion can look something like this:
“I understand this is difficult for you. I have covered your shifts for you today. Moving forward, what can I do to help?”
In this situation, the manager is not only expressing understanding and empathy but demonstrating a desire to help the employee through their struggles.
Benefits of Compassion in Empathy:
- Compassion is energizing rather than taxing.
- It promotes motivation as both the receiver and the giver benefit.
- It can help them feel happy, energized, and improve social bonds.
- Compassion can create a culture of trust, build connections, and help employees relate to each other.
- Compassion can lend to a more collaborative, innovative, and productive workplace.
Why Managing with Empathy is Important
A survey of more than 1,000 employed Americans revealed that 54% of employees left a previous job because their boss wasn't empathetic to their struggles at work. Additionally, 49% left a job because management lacked empathy for the struggles in their personal lives.
Why did empathy impact surveyed employees this much? Because we are all humans and, therefore, emotional. We ache for connection and understanding. If employees feel leadership refuses to understand how their experiences impact work performance, they will be unhappy. It will breed distrust and resentment.
Mary Ludden, an assistant teaching professor of project management at Northwestern, said, “All of us are seeking deeper connections not only in our personal lives but from our professional colleagues as well. Our ability to connect with each other on all levels of our consciousness will differentiate great leaders from being good managers.”
Empathy is one of the most important drivers of performance in management. The Center for Creative Leadership found that their bosses viewed the leaders who demonstrated high levels of empathy as better performers.
A manager who can identify and understand employee emotions is a more effective communicator and problem-solver. In turn, they are given more respect and rapport from their team. They will build relationships that will fuel success.
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Benefits of Managing with Empathy
- Improved success and effectiveness. As employees feel understood and that they can go to management with personal struggles, they will be more dedicated to the organization. They will be more motivated to obtain goals set for them by empathetic management. Empathy can lead to more effective communication and positive outcomes at work and home.
- More likely to retain talent. When employees feel respected, heard, and can communicate with leadership, they will be more likely to stay. Even if tough times in the company come, they will be more willing to stick it out because management has already extended help to them in their struggles.
- In a hybrid workplace, it can create small moments of connection. A hybrid environment can lack connection. It is easy for employees to experience different lives without really understanding their colleagues. Seeking moments for empathy can foster connection.
- Maintains relationships. Communicating what is difficult for us creates bonds. Think of a friendship. The relationship would suffer if you were never allowed to be genuine in what you felt and felt your friend didn’t understand. The same goes for management. Managing with empathy will maintain relationships between you and your team.
How to Become a More Empathetic Leader
Today’s successful leaders must be person-focused. As Ludden said, “The ability to understand and relate to the challenges your team encounters has never been more critical….You must zealously commit as a leader to practice empathy as a rule. Understanding how external and internal forces impact your team’s ability to succeed will no doubt become a defining characteristic of your leadership style.”
Committing to managing with empathy is the easy part. Knowing how to become more empathetic is where it becomes difficult. Currently, only 40% of business leaders exhibit proficient empathy skills.
So, how do you become more empathetic? Here are some things you can do:
Improve your listening skills.
One of the easiest ways to improve empathy is to improve listening skills. To understand someone, you need to listen to them. Much like what you learned in grade school, being a good listener means paying attention, not interrupting, and removing distractions.
Once you’ve developed good habits in simple listening skills, begin developing more advanced methods:
- Repeat what they are saying to them to ensure you hear them correctly.
- Keep an open mind to their perspective, especially if it differs from yours.
- Avoid ambush listening or listening to disagree.
- Pay attention to their emotions and nonverbal cues like tone and body language. Communication is 80% nonverbal. If you focus just on verbal, you only get 20% of the message.
Improved listening skills will make you a better communicator, and those you lead will know you value what they have to say.
Create a personal connection with your team
Take the time to form a personal bond with each team member. Inquire about their life and interests. Ask about their families, hobbies, passions, and past experiences. Simply get to know them and find ways to connect. Doing so will build a relationship.
As you build relationships with each team member, this will give you insight into the ways each team member communicates emotions. Then, you will be more likely to identify when your employee communicates feelings.
Additionally, creating a personal connection with your team will demonstrate that you care for them as a person. If there is a personal bond, employees will be more likely to feel like you understand them--that you care for more than the bottom line.
A personalized relationship will place you as an ally. It will facilitate open communication and a healthy work culture.
You can develop personal relationships by:
Try to see things from others' point of view.
No matter the situation, put yourself in their shoes. Think about what you would do if you were them. How would you act/feel? What would you want from a manager? By asking yourself these questions, you will begin to gain perspective. Use these insights to guide you in how you lead and respond.
Attend formal training
Just like any other skill, empathy can be taught at a training. It might seem silly to take a class on empathy, but some people dedicate their lives to researching the topic.
So, take a workshop or class from someone who can help you develop the skills to manage with empathy. Chances are, you will walk out with greater understanding and a toolbox full of techniques to be more empathetic.
Be aware of your employees' needs
As you seek to gain more significant connections with your team, you will understand them better. This will allow you to watch out for them. Keep your eyes open for signs that they need you to extend empathy. Then, when you notice something amiss, take action.
Ways you can support your employees:
- Keep an eye out for burnout in your employees.
- Show sincere interest in needs and hopes
- Be willing to help employees with personal issues
- Be compassionate when others experience loss
How Companies Can Foster Empathy in Leadership
Managing with empathy creates significant benefits for a company as a whole. It is never too late to foster empathetic leadership. All it takes is a little bit of effort.
Here are ways companies can build leaders who manage with empathy:
Talk about Empathy in Leadership
Emphasize that empathy and compassion matter. While task-oriented skills are essential to leadership, demonstrating understanding and caring is just as important. So spend time discussing it in a meeting; send out an email with handouts that discuss how they can implement empathy; host a training. Do whatever you can to make it part of your management discussions.
Teach listening skills
As discussed previously, listening is vital to empathy. Being a good listener means taking the meaning behind what they are saying. This requires advanced skills. Everyone can use training on ways to be a better listener. Taking the time to teach listening skills will improve empathy and communication within the company.
In discussions with management about their team, encourage them to consider team members' perspectives. The company can be the one to ask managers to understand how their employees’ personal lives and experiences impact their decision-making.
Encouraging perspective-taking can also be done in company-wide DEI efforts. As the company seeks to value diversity and inclusion, it will foster a greater understanding of how others' backgrounds impact their perspective, improving overall empathy.
Support leaders who demonstrate empathy
As you seek to develop compassionate leaders, be sure to support and recognize their efforts. Managing with empathy is challenging. It takes effort and time. If you want to foster this type of leadership, it will require a demonstration of support.
Support can be shown by helping them take action to assist struggling employees or gathering messages of gratitude in a group card. Whatever it looks like, be there for them as they seek to become more empathetic.
The Power of Managing with Empathy
Whether your workplace is hybrid, virtual, or in-office, the ability to empathize is a powerful skill. Studies are beginning to show that empathetic leadership is an asset to organizations.
As managers seek to be compassionate to their teams, they will find greater success, loyalty, and rapport. Their employees will be more satisfied and more likely to stay. However, the real power of managing with empathy is the overall betterment of your people as you build connections with each other.