You know Steve Jobs, but you don’t know him. Not like Ed Catmull, founder of Pixar and President of Walt Disney Animation, did. Catmull, who worked with Jobs for 26 years, writes in Creativity Inc. that the Apple founder Steve Jobs was a “boorish, brilliant, but emotionally tone-deaf guy” who “changed into a different man during the last two decades of his life.” During his time working with Jobs, he watched him transform from “dismissive and brusque” to “smarter about when to stop pushing people” and “how to keep pushing them, if necessary, without breaking them.”
Catmull essentially says that after Jobs got fired from Apple in 1985, this all-time low caused him to grow into someone who practiced empathetic leadership. By the time he returned to Apple in 1997, he was the transformational yet more emotionally intelligent leader the company needed.
Jobs would agree. As he explained in his famous Stanford commencement address, “I didn’t see it then, but it turned out that getting fired from Apple was the best thing that could have ever happened to me . . . It was awful tasting medicine, but I guess the patient needed it.”
As Jobs’ example demonstrates, practicing empathetic leadership is a win-win situation on multiple fronts. For instance, research conducted by Businessolver found 70 percent of employees feel empathy in leadership leads to lower turnover rates, while 76 percent think empathy drives productivity. When you are an empathetic executive, you develop strong relationships with your employees, grow your business, and create a legacy you can be proud of in the process. Yet, the same study found that only 63 percent of team members feel like their CEO is empathetic.
While having increased empathy has certainly never hurt anyone, not having it has. Learn more about empathetic leadership, its benefits, and actionable ways to practice it below.
What is Empathetic Leadership?
“It’s not about taking IN CHARGE but about taking care of the PEOPLE THAT ARE IN OUR CHARGE.”Simon sinek
Empathetic leadership is a leadership style that helps leaders understand their team members’ thoughts, feelings, and emotions. While an empathic leader is not an expert in mental health counseling, they do have a high level of emotional intelligence. This can make people feel more understood and less alone as they encounter challenges in life since empathy is the ability to experience, feel, or imagine what another person is going through.
The Need for Empathetic Leaders
“People will try to convince you that you should keep your empathy out of your career. Don’t accept this false premise.”Tim Cook
There’s a toxic belief that strong leaders need to be cutthroat, direct, and decisive in the business world. There’s nothing wrong with being assertive when appropriate, but great leadership is a balance of many leadership traits. The situation at hand should determine which ones you use. As Steve Jobs learned the hard way, a leader must level the scales with empathetic leadership skills to maintain strong relationships with customers, clients, and employees. This is what builds a positive team culture and keeps the business growing.
Other reasons for practicing empathetic leadership include:
- Better ability to motivate and inspire employees: As Oprah Winfrey once said, “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.” Without empathy, leaders won’t be able to get people excited about fulfilling their vision. This is because you have to relate to someone in order to understand what drives them and why. Once you know this information, you can use it to challenge, motivate, and inspire others.
- Preventing work burnout and job stress: Lack of empathy in the workplace can lead to poor physical and mental health in employees, low production, high turnover, and increased levels of job abandonment. It’s a leader’s job to create a safe work environment where people feel their well-being is a top priority. When executives and managers are empathetic, they put their team members’ needs first.
- Producing better teams: Catalyst’s research shows that employees who have empathetic leaders report more innovation, are less likely to leave a job, and less likely to burn out.
5 Easy Ways to Practice Empathetic Leadership at Work
Empathetic leadership is so much more than what you say, or even how you act. It’s leading with a caring heart. Find a few simple strategies for practicing empathy in the workplace below.
1. Don’t Jump to Negative Conclusions
“Give people the benefit of the doubt, over and over again . . . See the good in others so it brings out the best in you.”Liz newman
When it comes to empathy in leadership, an executive must become a positive thinker. This includes thinking positively about their direct reports, even when things go wrong. Instead of jumping to negative conclusions, they get to the heart of why mistakes or failures happened so they can help the person work through these issues and avoid them in the future.
For example, this might look like saying things like:
- “Can you walk me through what went wrong? I’d like to get more insight so we can prevent this problem from happening again.”
- “I know you feel disappointed because ________ happened. I don’t want you to feel like you have to experience these feelings alone. Let’s talk about it!”
- “My goal is to not blame or shame you for what went wrong. Mistakes happen, especially when you’re pushing yourself toward achieving big goals. With that said, I do think we should discuss a few ways to improve next time.”
2. Practice Active Listening
“Empathic listening takes time, but it doesn’t take anywhere near as much time as it takes to back up and correct misunderstandings when you’re already miles down the road . . .”Stephen covey
One of the most crucial leadership skills is active listening, which requires empathy. This is because active listeners truly want to understand and relate to the person they’re talking to. As a result, employees feel like their leaders care about their thoughts, feelings, and emotions.
To do this:
- Ask interesting follow-up questions to what the speaker says.
- Reiterate what you’re hearing.
- Nod, smile, and make eye contact. You want to show you’re giving someone your undivided attention.
3. Get a Better Perspective
“The greatest tragedy for any human being is going through their entire lives believing the only perspective that matters is their own.”Doug baldwin
Great leaders are humble—a trait that also requires empathy. They understand that their thoughts, beliefs, decisions, and opinions aren’t gospel. They have a growth mindset that causes them to seek counsel from mentors, receive higher education, and gain a better perspective by listening to employees at all levels. Doing so helps them grow their leadership skills to be the best for their businesses, customers, and employees.
4. Validate Others
“If self-validation were our most significant societal measure, we would give trophies to ourselves.”Mary anne radmacher
A great leader provides a refuge for others, meaning they are a place of security, stability, and safety. To do this, a person must have empathetic leadership skills. Whether supporting someone experiencing hardships in life or providing regular employee appreciation and recognition, upper-level executives must establish a culture of caring for others by validating and nurturing emotions.
Some tips for this include:
- Sharing a person’s feelings when they tell you about something emotionally difficult for them. This might look like showing genuine concern, being flexible regarding time off, or providing support without being asked to.
- Being willing to show up during tough moments. Don’t act avoidant and leave someone to suffer alone when they are struggling. Get the team together to embrace employees who are going through hard times.
- Acknowledging employees’ hard work by giving specific positive feedback. This means telling someone why they did such a great job and how it contributes to the company’s success.
- Expressing thanks or gratitude in a way that is meaningful to the person in front of you. To do this, you need to know how employees like to be appreciated. Learn more about this by checking out The Five Languages of Appreciation in the Workplace.
5. Show Interest in Your Employees’ Lives
“Trust is earned not through heroic deeds, or even highly visible actions, but through paying attention, listening, and gestures of genuine care and connection.”Brené Brown
Treat one-on-ones as an opportunity to show interest in your direct reports’ lives. This might look like checking in on how someone is feeling about a big project, asking about work-life balance, or just getting to know your team on a more personal level. As a leader, this helps you find opportunities to connect and support others. As a result, you’ll build stronger, trusting relationships that have the potential to last for many years.
Empathetic Leadership Starts at the Top
Data from Catalyst shows empathetic leadership is more impactful when it comes from senior leaders instead of front-line managers. This is because executive leaders set the pace for their company’s work environment and team culture. When a CEO provides a model for empathy by using it in every interaction they have with others, it sends a clear message that all leaders are expected to act similarly. It becomes a value everyone adheres to, which produces a great workplace environment.
Every encounter you have with another person in business is influential. You get to decide if this influence is good or bad. You get to decide if people walk away from a meeting thinking, “I will never forget how horrible this person treated me” or “I will never forget how kindly this person treated me.” All of these moments combined are what result in others’ perception of you as a leader.
The thing about legacy is other people determine it. But you can control the narrative, especially by practicing empathetic leadership.
Want more information on this particular leadership skill? Learn more about why empathy is important.