When you’re a leader who lacks empathy, you invite weeds into the garden you’re growing. These weeds come in various species: missed deadlines, sloppy results, increased work conflict, the formation of silos, poor teamwork, the inability to innovate, and decreased profits. They’re invasive—they grow quickly, spreading thin, stringy roots throughout the soil with one goal: overtaking anything that’s good and replacing it with something ugly, useless, and life-strangling. Lacking empathy and having empathy is the difference between growing weeds and pulling them before they spring up. With that said, if you want a fruitful business, you must know and practice the answer to the question, “What is empathy?”
Having empathetic executives determines a company’s ability to innovate, fight work burnout, and retain top employees. Research from Catalyst backs this statement up, finding “61% of people with highly empathic senior leaders report often or always being innovative at work compared to only 13% of people with less empathic senior leaders.” In addition to this, “76% of people with highly empathic senior leaders report often or always being engaged, compared to only 32% of people with less empathic senior leaders.”
Increased innovation and engagement keep companies healthy and thriving for decades. If you want sustainable business success, learn more about what empathy is, the top reasons for growing it, and how to get started.
What is Empathy
There are multiple types of empathy that allow someone to feel, imagine, share, and understand another person’s emotions. Empathetic people put themselves in others’ shoes before they react. They do this by mentally and emotionally walking through how the person they’re interacting with feels. This prevents them from passing judgment, shaming, or speaking inconsiderately.
The Connection Between Emotional Intelligence and Empathy
Emotional intelligence and empathy are deeply interconnected. Empathy falls under relationship management, one of the four quadrants of emotional intelligence (EI). However, Daniel Goleman, a pioneer in EI, says empathy is the most important emotional trait a person needs to build strong relationships on the job. “Empathy represents the foundation skill for all the social competencies important for work,” he writes in Working with Emotional Intelligence.
Types of Empathy
The meaning of empathy can differ since there are three types a person can use to understand others’ feelings and emotions better. For a broader picture of what empathy is, check out each definition of empathy below.
Affective empathy is emotionally feeling what others are feeling. It is one of the best types of empathy because it allows a person to understand and share pain alongside those who are hurting. For example, if one of your direct reports felt devastated after falling short of reaching their key performance indicators (KPIs) last month, you might share their sadness. However, feeling what they feel is also the best way to understand how much they need to be uplifted.
While affective empathy is emotional, somatic empathy is physical. When a person demonstrates this meaning of empathy, it might look like taking on another person’s bodily pain, stress, or hurt. For instance, if a team member tells you they’re not being themselves today because they have an excruciating headache, you might feel like you have a headache too. This helps you relate to how they’re feeling, which allows you to cut them a little slack if they seem snappy or tired.
Cognitive empathy is the same as imagining yourself walking a mile in someone else’s shoes. Out of all the types of empathy, this one requires the most mental focus because it calls you to visualize what a person is going through. By stepping inside another person’s world for a moment, those who feel empathy in this manner find themselves better understanding someone else. For instance, an employer with an employee recovering from the loss of their mother might imagine what losing their own mother would feel like. As a result, they could react in the way they’d want to be treated.
What are the Benefits of Empathy at Work
“Without empathy, it is not possible to get the best from your team, so for this reason, it is the key to everything.”Satya Nadella, CEO of Microsoft
When you have empathy, you make others feel safe to be themselves. They feel open to sharing their emotions, ideas, and challenges with you. Trust and strong relationships grow when leaders show empathy and create an empathetic work culture. Check out the stats below to see how much empathy makes a difference in companies.
Why You Need to be an Empathetic Leader
- Provides Work-Life Balance: A report from Catalyst shows when senior leaders are more empathetic, 86 percent of employees feel better able to maintain work-life balance. Only 60 percent of workers with less empathetic bosses feel they can do this.
- Supports Diversity and Inclusion: Executives should back up D&I initiatives with strong, empathetic leadership that makes people feel supported and safe. In the same study listed above, 62 percent of women of color with empathetic leaders felt their life circumstances were respected. Because of this, they reported “never or rarely thinking” of leaving their organization. This is in contrast to 33 percent of women of color who said they’re thinking of leaving their job because their boss was less empathetic.
- Makes Businesses More Innovative: Research from Nielsen discovered having empathy leads to a higher likelihood of innovation and success than businesses without it. Their report showed 3 out of 4 fast-moving consumer goods launches fail. The ones that did succeed were able to use cognitive empathy to understand their customers better.
- Raises Employee Retention Rates: According to Businessolver, “83 percent would consider leaving their current organization for a similar role at a more empathetic organization.”
- Increases Outcomes: Businessolver also found 84 percent of CEOs believe empathy is key to producing positive outcomes in business.
While empathy might seem like a “soft skill” that only enhances your ability to succeed in the workplace, the statistics above show it’s vital that leaders develop it. As leadership expert Peggy Klaus states: “Soft skills get little respect, but will make or break your career.”
Now that the question, “What is empathy?” has been answered, find out more about how to develop it.
How to be a More Empathetic Leader (Starting Now)
1. Use One-on-Ones as a Way to Check In
“Everyone talks about building a relationship with your customer. I think you build one with your employees first.”
While these meetings are a great way to check on the progress of projects, use a portion of your time to see how your direct reports feel. Did they face a challenge last week? Are they going through a life change? Get curious and ask work-appropriate questions about their life, feelings, and emotions. It helps you build an open, honest, trusting relationship with your team members.
2. Give Praise That is Specific
“Nothing else can quite substitute for a few well-chosen, well-timed, sincere words of praise. They’re absolutely free and worth a fortune.”
Use cognitive empathy to think of how employees might want to receive praise. For example, imagine yourself being the other person after achieving a huge yearly goal. What particular challenges did they face and conquer? Why does this accomplishment matter to the business? What specifically did you find exceptional about their work? Answering questions like these will help you give positive feedback that is sincere and meaningful.
3. Notice Body Language
“The most important thing in communication is to hear what isn’t being said.”
Highly empathetic people aren’t just self-aware—they’re socially aware. A part of this heightened awareness is noticing body language and other social cues that indicate how those around them might be feeling. As Daniel Goleman, the expert on EI mentioned above, explains in Emotional Intelligence, “People’s emotions are rarely put into words . . . The key to intuiting another’s feelings is in the ability to read:
- Nonverbal channels
- Tone of voice
- Facial expression and the like.”
The next time you’re in a meeting with someone, whether virtual or in-person, expand your awareness and take note of what else they’re telling you. If the message is different than their words, get curious and inquire into it.
4. Offer Support
“When companies offer support and assistance for personal and family hardships, their employees become more loyal and more productive.”
Above all, great leaders are servants. Instead of having the attitude of, “What can others do for me?” they empathetically ask, “What can I do for others?”
But they don’t just dream up ways to help and support their team members.
They take action.
The next time you notice an employee needs assistance with something, ask how you can help them be successful at their job, listen, and follow through.
Additionally, if you know there’s something you can do to help, do it. People build life-long relationships by showing up during the moments they don’t have to.
5. Practice Active Listening
“Active listening is not only a matter of making yourself available to hear someone talk, but it is showing the sender, physically, that you are receiving and understanding their message on all levels.”Susan C. Young
When meeting with others—especially during virtual meetings—show empathy through active listening. When a person makes a good point, recognize and validate what they said. If you aren’t sure what they mean, verbalize what you’re hearing and ask clarifying questions. You can also use your body language to show you’re engaged and paying attention. Do this by nodding, being expressive, and leaning forward.
6. Provide Emotional Validation
“Everybody is looking for validation, no matter who you are, and I think that’s a need of the human condition—to look for affection or recognition or validation.”Alejandro Gonzalez Inarritu
One form of empathy is validation. Often, employees might feel like their problems are too insignificant to be important. This can cause feelings of guilt, shame, and low self-esteem. As a leader, when you validate another person, you’re telling them, “No, this is a legitimate issue—let’s solve it together.” It makes employees feel like you’re a safe person they can trust and build a relationship with. Validating people’s emotions also helps them express their problems. It’s the first step in working through challenges instead of leaving them unresolved.
7. Treat Employees Like Adults
I deeply resent how we’ve infantilized the workplace. How we feel we have to apologize for having lives. That we don’t trust adults to make the right decisions. How constant connectivity/availability (or even the perception of it) has become a valued skill . . . I never want you to feel horrible for being a human being.”Ian Sohn
Empathy is treating people as you want them to treat you. If you wouldn’t want to follow archaic work policies, be micromanaged, or have an inflexible work schedule, don’t create this type of work environment. While you have a vision of the better future your business will create, trust the people you hired to help get you there. When you don’t have people working in a box, innovation becomes a part of the company culture, allowing you to reach your goals quicker and set the bar higher.
8. Reduce Meetings, but Not Communication
“The longer the meeting, the less accomplished.”Tim Cook
While meetings might seem like an excellent opportunity to connect with your team, be empathetic by understanding their time is precious. Your employees are launching projects, meeting KPIs, and moving the needle forward. When you schedule unnecessary meetings, it decreases the amount of time needed to get everything done.
This doesn’t mean you shouldn’t meet—just make sure that each minute accomplishes something when you do. Save time by showing up to meetings with an agenda that achieves specific goals. The more prepared and organized you are, the more you tell people you care about their time.
Eliminate unnecessary meetings, but keep communication flowing to prevent silos from forming. Instant messages, emails, quick phone calls, and even voice memos are great ways to do this.
Establishing a casual repertoire between yourself and your team also makes you seem more human and less like an intimidating robot they should only approach during emergencies. When chatting, use GIFs, emojis, italics, bold text, and exclamation marks to be more personable.
Empathetic Leaders are Servant Leaders
So, what is empathy? As leadership expert Simon Sinek explains in Leaders Eat Last, “Empathy is not something we offer to our customers or our employees from nine to five . . . (it) is . . . a second by second, minute by minute service that [we] owe to everyone if [we] want to call [ourselves] a leader.”
Sinek means empathy isn’t a skill we pull out of our leadership toolbox when we want to make a situation better. It’s a way of living that transforms people from selfish to selfless.
If you want to be an empathetic leader, the best leadership style to practice is servant leadership which focuses on fulfilling the needs of others.
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