Now more than ever empathy is an essential skill for leaders. The old-school mindset of tough leadership driving good outcomes is long gone. If there is one thing the pandemic has taught leaders, it is that people have challenges and needs outside of the workplace. Without empathy how can a business create harmony, retain staff and meet its goals?
In fact, research indicates that empathetic leadership not only creates a more peaceful workplace, it actually has a positive effect on everything from innovation to retention. Effective leadership requires a delicate balance of skills to create space for engagement, performance, and happiness. Some believe empathy is the top trait leaders need to possess.
As a psychotherapist and mental health consultant I regularly observe the harmful effects work stress, anxiety and burnout can have on my clients. Distress at work is often a result of not feeling valued or heard. Our work lives and personal lives are closely intertwined and emotions flow and circulate throughout both arenas. So let’s explore what empathetic leadership looks like and the impact it can have on individuals and organizations.
What is Empathetic Leadership
Empathetic leadership places value on identifying with team members and understanding their points of view. Empathetic leaders take a sincere interest in their staff, what motivates them, what frustrates them, and how they feel overall. This type of leader seeks to understand why people are the way they are. Ultimately this desire helps them become effective leaders who can connect with many types of people and adapt their approach accordingly. Empathetic leaders take action to help team members feel valued and to prosper in their careers.
Traits of Empathetic Leaders
Below are some of the defining traits of empathetic leaders. Check in whether these traits reaI have listed empathy as first on the list of course, but there are some other valuable competencies to add to the mix.
Empathy. Empathy is demonstrated by practicing deep listening, being fully present, and recognizing different working styles, communication styles, and challenges.
Compassion. Compassion is the desire to relieve someone’s pain. It is putting what you have learned about the person into practice and taking steps to help.
Emotional Intelligence. Emotional intelligence includes recognizing others’ emotions, as well as controlling your own emotions. It allows you to practice empathy and compassion without letting your emotions overcome you, stifling your ability to help.
Flexibility. Empathetic leaders can tune into the needs and emotions of others and adapt to any situation. They demonstrate the ability to stay true to their values and beliefs while incorporating the needs of others into their decisions.
How Empathy Contributes to Positive Outcomes
As people seek and struggle to find happiness at work, empathy can greatly contribute to positive experiences for individuals and teams. Below are some of the positive effects of empathy that studies have revealed.
Innovation. Employees felt empowered to be innovative when they worked for empathetic leaders.
Engagement. People were more likely to be engaged and interactive when they had empathetic leaders.
Retention. Studies showed that people were less likely to leave their jobs when they felt their life circumstances were of importance to their employers. They felt better equipped to navigate the demands of personal and work obligations.
Cooperation. When empathy was a part of the decision making process people had a greater desire to cooperate and problem solve.
Mental Health. When leaders were perceived as more empathetic, employees reported greater levels of mental health.
How to Lead with Empathy
So how can leaders lead with empathy? The key is to consider the thoughts and feelings of others. Using cognitive empathy a leader needs to consider “If I was in his or her situation what would I be thinking?”. Leaders can also utilize emotional empathy by considering “If I was in his or her position what would I be feeling?”
Leaders are likely to be most successful in building bridges with others when they express genuine concern for one’s situation, inquire about any challenges the individual is facing, and truly listen to the response.
Leaders don’t have to be mental health professionals in order to demonstrate empathy and compassion. They can accomplish this by checking in, asking questions, and being sensitive to how much the individual is comfortable sharing. It is also important for leaders to be knowledgeable about the company’s supports for mental health so they can offer information about resources for additional assistance.
To coin a very old phrase “actions speak louder than words”; people tend to trust leaders and feel more engaged and committed when what the leader says and does are in sync. The understanding of someone else’s situation needs to translate into compassion and action.
For empathy to have an impact it is all about understanding an individual’s struggles and offering to help. It is also about respecting another’s point of view and engaging to build a better solution whenever possible.
Leading with empathy not only enriches individual relationships and workplace cultures; it also has a positive impact on meeting organizational goals. While empathy has always come naturally to some leaders it is now gaining a new wave of attention. Recent research confirms how empathetic leadership is critical to the future of the workplace.
Licensed Psychotherapist & Certified Coach.