The Future of Leadership is Empathy—And Companies are Better for It
By stepping outside themselves, empathetic leaders are often great communicators and relationship builders. Think about someone who really took time to help you grow. They were most likely an empath.
This article was written by Lindsay Patton, an Entrepreneur NEXT powered by Assemble expert. Do you want to future-proof your business with on-demand expertise? Entrepreneur NEXT has the expert solutions your business needs to succeed in an evolving market.
We'd all be better off by following the millennial model: showing more empathy at work.
Empathy in the workplace has been a millennial-led trend for a few years, and if companies and leaders don’t adapt, it’s going to be increasingly difficult to find and retain talent. We hear over and over how millennials have ruined, well, everything. However, they’re getting a lot of things right, especially when it comes to expecting better treatment from colleagues and higher ups.
Since millennials entered the workplace, they’ve been making some demands that have shaken things up and shown us they actually do not want that office pool table. Truthfully, all the pool tables and free beer in the world doesn’t mean anything if millennials are working in a toxic environment.
This is why empathy in leadership has been a hot topic lately. The millennial generation is currently the largest in the workforce, which means they’re driving the workforce. Leaders of all generations are beginning to see their roles in a different light, and as these attitudes change, they will have to adapt in order to be successful.
Here's how and why it benefits you to be an empathetic leader.
Empaths understand emotions outside their own.
Empathy is complicated, and many people don’t understand exactly what it entails. It’s more than being “nice,” and it’s much different from sympathy. An empath is someone who understands what another person is going through by looking at the situation from their perspective. By stepping outside themselves, empathetic leaders are often great communicators and relationship builders. Think about someone who really took time to help you grow. They were most likely an empath.
In a leadership environment specifically, empathy is understanding that your employees have their own complex working and communication styles, as well as a life separate from work. Most employees do not feel comfortable talking about stress in the workplace, which builds up even more stress for them. An empathetic leader creates an environment where employees feel safe communicating their stress. You don’t need to know the details of their lives, just work with them on how to make their personal work experience less stressful through understanding how they work, their strengths, challenges they face and any uncertainties they have in their role. It’s widely reported that employees are more productive when they feel supported by their employer—13 percent, in fact. As a leader, you set the tone and have an influence over your employee’s happiness at work.
Empathic leadership uses a coaching mindset.
It’s a coach’s job to identify a player’s talent and potential, and work with them to bring it all out to move the team forward. In this case, the player is your employee and the team is your company. Embrace their strengths first, and coach their weaknesses. Give them ownership over what they are best at and understand that everyone won’t be good at everything. Like a good coach, utilize your team to fill in the weaknesses so your employee feels less stress to perform beyond their capabilities.
Asking questions is also an important part of the coaching process. Encouraging your employees to ask questions and look at the work as something they can fully explore will reward everyone. Yes, you will still need to provide answers, but giving people agency to use their curiosity and creativity will inspire new ideas you may have never thought of.
Coaching isn’t about control, unlike the boss archetype. As the workforce evolves rapidly, bosses are seeing a bigger need for coaching, which cultivates a “true learning organization,” according to Harvard Business Review. For their own workflow, they need to get comfortable with hands-off management and leaving the job to the experts. The boss’ role is now to facilitate as needed to focus on their own priorities.
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Empathy breeds inclusivity.
When you are a comprehensive and empathetic leader, the workspace opens up to new thoughts and perspectives. The "we" mentality of leadership invites new ideas and solutions, while the ‘me’ mentality closes off innovation.
Empathetic leaders are also more likely to view diversity and inclusion as a key part of a business’ success. In inclusion-focused workplaces, it is easier to acquire and retain talent, increase performance and innovation and boost employee engagement. Unfortunately, three-fourths of people in underrepresented groups say they do not benefit from their company's diversity and inclusion programs.
As a leader, it’s up to you to build inclusivity into the fabric of your company. The first step is education. Seek out experts to inform and consult—the more you know about best practices, the better you can be an example to your employees. Identify experts and employees whose feedback you respect and work with them to form a diversity and inclusion committee. By having various perspectives, you will have more solutions and improvements for your company.
Empathy lessens reactivity.
For many, it’s instinct to point fingers when something goes wrong. But instead of jumping to conclusions and scolding your employee, get behind the why. Being stern and assertive may get you fast results and establish dominance, but a reactive leader causes employees unnecessary anxiety and stress, which is detrimental to the company.
The Anxiety and Depression Association of America released a study on work’s impact on stress and anxiety. An average of 50 percent of people surveyed said workplace stress affects their performance, work quality and professional relationships. What’s more alarming is that seven in 10 people say stress at work affects their personal relationships. Management accounts for a lot of that stress, with 50 percent of responders saying management has an effect on their mental health.
Anyone who has had a job knows what bad management looks like. You’ve most likely tensed up when an email came through from a never-satisfied boss. An after-hours email can derail an employees’ evening or weekend, and pointing fingers and scolding immediately puts employees on the defense.
An empathetic leader will check in on their employee and facilitate problem solving, as opposed to reacting. Did you provide everything the employee needs? A good manager recognizes an employee’s success reflects leadership as well. Do you know what is going on in your employee’s life outside of that project? Probably not - and you don’t need to know - so give them a little grace.
When you allow room for mistakes and problem solving, it’s easier for employees to feel comfortable exploring their skills, coming to you with challenges and being transparent with their work. What’s easier? Approaching a boss that expects perfection each time, or one that is willing to listen and offer the tools to succeed?
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