Why is empathy important? According to research conducted by Businessolver®, 84 percent of CEOs believe empathy drives better business outcomes. In addition to this, 72 percent of workers believe empathy influences employee motivation. With these statistics in mind, it’s apparent empathy is a leadership skill those guiding companies need. Yet, in a 2019 report by the same company, almost 60 percent of CEOs reported struggling with being consistently empathetic. This shows a gap between thinking empathy is essential and doing what is necessary to become an empathetic leader.
The good news is, with daily practice, empathy increases over time. This means a person can become highly empathetic, even if they feel like it isn’t in their nature. However, this requires following through on daily actions that lead to increased empathy. In this article, learn more about the importance of empathy, what it is, why people lack empathy, and what to do to become more empathetic.
What is Empathy?
Empathy is the ability to understand someone from their perspective. It includes sharing how another person feels as they encounter different circumstances, situations, and life experiences. Leaders cannot employ effective empathy until they understand why empathy is important.
Empathy welcomes people to shift from their individual experiences and think about how those they interact with might feel. As Brené Brown writes in Daring Greatly, “Empathy is a strange and powerful thing. There is no script. There is no right way or wrong way to do it. It’s simply listening, holding space, withholding judgment, emotionally connecting, and communicating that incredibly healing message of ‘You’re not alone.’” In addition to this definition, many compare empathy to “walking a mile in someone else’s shoes.”
Empathy vs. Sympathy
It’s important to note, empathy and sympathy are not the same. Empathy is a shared experience. It is the process of eliminating the barrier between you and someone else. This involves removing your judgments and perceptions so you can experience what someone else is feeling alongside them. However, with sympathy, that barrier remains. Unlike empathy, sympathy is feeling sorry for someone, making it an individualized experience. Often, acting in this manner makes others feel more isolated and alone instead of understood and supported.
Empathy vs. Compassion
Similarly, empathy and compassion are different emotions. Compassion is more closely related to sympathy because it is feeling for someone. Unlike those who are compassionate, those who are empathetic seek to understand the point of view, feelings, and emotions of others. Again, the key difference is that empathy is a shared experience, while compassion is more about one individual acting in relation to another.
Why Empathy is Important in the Workplace
When reviewing the statistics surrounding the importance of empathy in work cultures, it’s clear there are many benefits. Incorporating it into a business leads to increased employee retention, higher engagement levels, better chances at recruiting top talent, greater employee satisfaction, and better business results. Take a look at some of the findings that prove this below.
- 82 percent of employees view empathy as a critical way to influence businesses (Businessolver).
- 92 percent of team members would be more likely to stay with their company if business leaders empathized with their needs (Businessolver).
- 77 percent of workers would consider longer hours if their employer was empathetic (Businessolver).
- 82 percent of people would leave their current job for a more empathetic work culture (Businessolver).
- 9 out of every 10 workers believe empathy is essential for a healthy workplace culture (SHRM).
- 87 percent of CEOs agree the company’s financial performance is tied to empathy (Businessolver).
Other Reasons Empathy Matters
- Empathy is an interpersonal skill needed to build strong relationships with others.
- Those who practice empathy in communication are more likely to prevent conflict, upset feelings, and resentment.
- Empathetic leaders model leadership skills people need to lead teams. This teaches the next generation of leaders how to think, act, and speak when interacting with others.
- Team members who feel like their leaders understand and care about them are more likely to perform better. In turn, this affects how much a business can succeed and grow.
- When employees know how to be empathetic, they can use their improved communication skills to better relate to customers. As a result, this increases customer satisfaction and loyalty.
Empathy and the Loss of a Loved One
It’s also important to consider a real problem all organizations face at some point: employees experiencing the loss of a loved one. Showing up in these moments creates unbreakable bonds between team members and their leaders. However, when facing the death of someone close to them, most employees are provided sympathy rather than the empathy they desire.
In Option B, Sheryl Sandberg, COO of Facebook, writes that when experiencing the loss of a loved one, “Only 60 percent of private-sector workers get paid time off—and usually just a few days.” She continues, “The economic stress that frequently follows bereavement is like a one-two punch” for both employees and their employers. Asking someone to come back to work when they’re still grieving doesn’t benefit the business or those working there. In fact, Sandberg says, “In the United States alone, grief-related losses in productivity may cost companies as much as $75 billion annually.”
The COO suggests that empathetic leaders should offer an alternative, supportive work arrangement. This might look like additional days off without penalty (Facebook offers 20), providing flexible work hours, and even welcoming them back with reduced workweeks. Sandberg says in the long run, acting with empathy pays off.
Understanding the Different Types of Empathy
Empathy is a critical leadership quality that leads to strong, successful organizations. Yet, this isn’t as simple as just being nicer to people. To be truly effective, a leader must know all the various types of empathy and strategically think about the most suitable one for each situation they experience. To get familiar with these, learn more about each one below.
Affective empathy is when a person feels what others are feeling. They might be particularly sensitive to sensing and experiencing people’s pain, suffering, and emotions. With this, they demonstrate a high level of emotional intelligence that helps them better relate to those around them.
Example of Affective Empathy
During a group discussion on building a trusting work culture that protects people from toxic bosses, a team member shares a painful experience from their last job. As they tell their story, they start crying, feeling overwhelmed by this memory. Their boss, feeling the hurt in their voice, shares their emotions and also begins tearing up too. Additionally, they might mimic the person’s body language to reflect they’re not alone as they talk about what happened.
Unlike affective empathy, cognitive empathy is more about mentally resonating with someone’s feelings and emotions. A person with cognitive empathy might be supportive and caring. However, they could also not display the same kind of outward reaction someone who shows affective empathy does. This form of empathy is more like fulfilling the phrase of “walking in someone else’s shoes.” It requires someone to think about how the person they’re interacting with feels.
Example of Cognitive Empathy
During a one-on-one meeting, an employee tells their supervisor they were diagnosed with cancer. They express they feel unsure about the future, especially when it comes to working. Instantly, the leader shifts into the perspective of imagining what they’re feeling: scared, stressed, and in need of support. Knowing this, they communicate the last thing they want is their employee worrying about their workload when they’re in treatment. The leader vows to work with them on a detailed plan that ensures they receive all of the care they need without being penalized for missing work. When the team member walks away from the meeting, they feel like they’re facing their challenge with their employer.
Somatic empathy is when a person physically feels what another person feels. This makes it similar to affective empathy, yet somatic empathy manifests in bodily reactions. For instance, when experiencing others’ emotions, the body changes to show this.
Example of Somatic Empathy
Two co-founders are speaking at a conference. While one presenter is confident, the other is visibly nervous and communicates they’re terrified of public speaking. Because the confident co-founder has somatic empathy, they starting sweating and shaking before going on stage too.
While compassion and empathy are not the same, they can intersect. This is reflected in compassionate empathy, which is when a person feels motivated by the emotions they experience to help someone else in need. This process turns an individualized experience into a shared experience with a positive outcome.
Example of Compassionate Empathy
An employee who’s worked at a successful company for 20 years shares with the CEO of the business that their child is graduating from high school. However, when the leader asks where they’re going to college, the proud parent turns their eyes toward the ground. They admit they can’t afford tuition. The compassionate leader feels for the person and says they’ll make arrangements to support their kid’s college fund, whether with an internship, apprenticeship, or scholarship.
What Causes of a Lack of Empathy
While being empathetic might seem like second nature for those with high levels of emotional intelligence, this isn’t the case for all. Several factors such as judgmental behavior, lack of understanding others’ social, cultural, racial, or economic background, and cognitive problems might affect someone’s levels of empathy. Explore more of the reasons you might feel a lack of empathy below.
Social Stigma Around Mental Health
The American Health Association reports that 76 percent of U.S. employees say they’ve struggled with their mental health at some point in their lives. However, most people don’t openly express this to their employer. A Paychex survey found that 54 percent of employees feel they can’t discuss their mental health with their supervisor. Additionally, 30 percent said they feared if they did, they’d be fired or furloughed. This says a lot about the social stigma regarding mental health and the lack of empathy people experience when they do communicate the state of their well-being.
Cognitive Disorders and Developmental Conditions
Sometimes people lack empathy because of the way their brain develops. For example, according to Lisa Jo Rudy for verywellhealth.com, people with autism can struggle with cognitive empathy since they might not understand nonverbal cues like body language and facial expressions. However, this doesn’t mean those on the autism spectrum entirely lack empathy. In fact, they might feel a person’s emotions so intensely (affective empathy), it could cause them to withdraw socially.
Additionally, it is a misconception that psychopaths cannot be empathetic. In fact, according to neuroscientist James Fallon, they can learn to feel high levels of cognitive empathy while they are void of emotional empathy. This means a psychopath might mentally relate to how you feel without feeling your emotions.
Often, people struggle to feel empathy when they form prejudiced beliefs. Whether they learned to think this way from those in their social network or are simply ignorant of others’ life experiences, these notions can cause a lack of empathy. This is because people elicit emotional reactions based on their belief systems. When these are left unquestioned and unchecked, the mind leans toward dehumanizing others, making their pain, suffering, and hurt feel justifiable.
Research also shows we are more likely to feel empathetic toward those within our social group. Science Daily reports that a study published in the Journal of Neuroscience “confirms an in-group bias in empathic feelings.” In the experiment, scientists grouped people based on their race and showed them videos of people getting pricked by a needle or gently touched with a cotton swab. Both groups tested elicited a stronger emotional reaction to the needle prick when they saw it happen to someone of their race.
How to Become a More Empathetic Leader
After learning the importance of empathy and why you might feel a lack of it, it’s time to find out how to become more empathetic. Practice the tips below to develop your emotional intelligence and become a more empathetic leader.
1. Gain a Larger Perspective
One of the best ways to become increasingly empathetic is to get to know people outside your current social group. Establishing a mentorship program that fosters a sense of diversity and inclusion is an example of what this might look like. It’s also a two-pronged organizational win. Executives get the chance to build connections with people they might not normally interact with while more employees learn how to step into leadership roles.
Another way to gain perspective is by learning from others. This includes listening to business podcasts with a wide selection of guests, watching different videos on leadership, and attending diversity and inclusion conferences. On top of this, reading books written by an expansive group of authors is another way to gain more insight into the lives of others, why they feel the way they do, and how you can meet people in their emotions. As author Malorie Blackman says, “Reading is an exercise in empathy; an exercise in walking in someone else’s shoes for a while.”
2. Become More Actively Involved in Your Community
Similarly, getting involved in one’s community is another way to meet a wide variety of people who are different from you. Not only does this exemplify servant leadership by putting others’ needs above your own, it also helps others in need, which is an example of compassionate empathy. Interacting with people facing life challenges can also lead a person to feel affective and cognitive empathy. The stronger your connection with others, the more likely you’ll actively want to make a difference in their lives.
When working in your community:
- Be a resource and give to those in need.
- Offer a listening ear.
- Work together with your team to participate in philanthropic causes like Habitat for Humanity, volunteer at a local homeless shelter, or work at a food bank.
- Develop community programs that make others’ challenges less burdensome.
- Provide emotional support when needed.
- Point out others’ strengths and positive qualities to uplift them.
- Make people feel less alone as they face struggles others might judge them for.
3. Practice Open Communication
Leaders who create the conditions for open communication get more opportunities to practice being empathetic, which increases empathy. When employees feel like they can open up and express their feelings without judgment, they’re more likely to discuss things like their mental health, problems they’re struggling with, and feelings and emotions they would usually keep bottled up.
People who don’t communicate their issues continue struggling with them, as no one is aware they need help and support. However, companies with leaders who develop a work environment where people can discuss their problems experience higher problem resolution, job satisfaction, employee retention, productivity, and profitability.
To develop a culture of openly communicating:
- Meet one-on-one with team members at least once a week to talk about their work, problems they’re facing, how they’re feeling, and anything else they want to discuss.
- Ask people about their opinions, thoughts, ideas, and feelings.
- Actively listen. This means giving all your attention to someone when they’re speaking, asking clarifying questions, and repeating back what you’re hearing from them.
- Use empathy in communication. Never shame or judge someone for mistakes, failures, confessions, or emotions. It isn’t constructive, and it only causes further damage. Instead, think about how to make someone feel less alone during hard times.
- Be curious about someone’s state of being. For example, pick up on nonverbal cues. This might look like someone crossing their arms in disagreement, rolling their eyes, nervously smiling, raising their eyebrows, changing their tone of voice, or shifting their energy. Don’t be afraid to dig deeper to find out what’s wrong if someone isn’t expressing how they feel.
- Share your own experiences with your team. As a leader, being vulnerable shows people talking about your feelings and emotions isn’t weak—it’s a way to build a stronger connection with others.
More Empathy Leads to Higher Emotional Intelligence
Developing more empathy requires patience and passion: the patience to stick with it and the passion to grow into the best leader for your team. To experience long-term success, empathy is necessary. This is because it’s a part of relationship management, one of the four domains of emotional intelligence (EI). Business leaders with more emotional intelligence can better build functional teams that work cohesively together, retain great employees from leaving the business, and reach higher performance levels. TalentSmart, a business that offers emotional intelligence training, found that of all the leadership skills, EI was the most important.
Empathy is the intersection between “me” and “you.” It begins building a bridge that leads to a mindset of “us.” Without the mindset of taking on challenges together, businesses will inevitably fail. When there’s a lack of it, it’s impossible to lead a company full of people who voluntarily put their whole heart into helping you fulfill your mission. As actor Max Carver explains, “Empathy is the starting point for creating a community and taking action. It’s the impetus for creating change.”
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