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Why This One Leadership Trait is Crucial for Tough Decisions — and 3 Ways to Cultivate it The benefits of empathy within your organization and business are immeasurable.

By Dustin Lemick Edited by Micah Zimmerman

Key Takeaways

  • A culture of empathy can be spread to partners, customers, vendors, and every aspect of business.
  • Empathy can sometimes mean acting against your beliefs and putting others ahead of yourself.

Opinions expressed by Entrepreneur contributors are their own.

The massive layoffs in the tech industry earlier this year sparked an interesting conversation here. It's one I continue to remember long after. Leaders and organizations are often put into positions where difficult decisions that impact others must be made — where employees, vendors, partners and even customers can be affected by our choices.

Determinations are rarely made by the company's founder or CEO alone. We don't typically have ultimate control. It is often the Board of Directors, venture capital investors or shareholders with voting shares. There can be circumstances that are beyond anyone's control. Significant revenue loss or economic turmoil often force painful decisions.

Related: A Guide to Effective Crisis Leadership — Key Steps to Lead Your Team Through Turbulent Times

Yet, when choices have to be made, we usually must deliver the message. When people you've worked with closely feel the brunt, it is particularly challenging. We're not always taught how to navigate hard decisions in business school or what to do when something has a ripple effect on others. What I have found to help is empathetic leadership. When the going gets tough, empathy can carry a lot more weight than might be expected. It can also wield much power far beyond challenges, which can benefit your day-to-day operations and bottom line.

There are a lot of misconceptions and misunderstandings about empathetic leadership. Some see "empathetic" and forget that "leadership" is a significant part. They assume that empathetic leaders are soft or meek. In reality, they are strong, talented people who are highly skilled at driving success – while recognizing the value of people. Empathetic leaders can look at any decision, issue or discussion, and see their business from multiple angles and understand other people's viewpoints. There are endless examples of this leadership approach having a dynamic impact on organizations.

At my company, BriteCo, we've seen empathy help enable employee retention, drive customer satisfaction and sales, improve innovation and create a supportive work environment and culture. People who feel appreciated and acknowledged want to go to bat or you and your business. Our employees are excited and engaged and want to contribute. They function in a safe environment where everybody feels that they can weigh in. They feel heard and valued, relevant and important. It has also helped us recruit outstanding talent, where people have referred colleagues and former co-workers to us. That culture of empathy has spread to partners, customers, vendors and every aspect of our business. When you're an empathetic leader, the approach and benefits are felt company-wide.

It doesn't mean empathetic leaders do not have to make hard decisions. Cutting jobs, ending vendor contracts, or other determinations that impact people are often still part of the job.

But, when these instances arise, you are caring for people in the best way possible. For example, a company that I am familiar with had to lay off employees. They approached it by being transparent, caring and honest about the situation. They then opened their professional network to help workers find roles elsewhere. It may not have made the decision any easier, but they knew that they handled it in the best way possible. It helped take away the sting of separation for everyone involved.

Related: 7 Ways To Stay Resilient As a Leader During Turbulent Times

For entrepreneurs who are interested in incorporating empathy into their companies, these three steps can help:

  1. Learn – Exploring the principles of servant leadership can be a good starting point. There are books, videos and media articles to help you learn and foster your skills. At its very base, empathetic leadership requires having an open mind and putting value on everybody regardless of who they are or their role in the company.
  2. Care - Empathetic leaders cultivate genuine care for others. They do not just see people as employees, vendors or business partners. They are interested in who they are, their opinions and their perspectives. As they operate and lead their companies, they have everyone in mind and try to tap in. It can take an extra step, but it can be highly valuable.
  3. Listen - Let people give their input and ideas without being judgemental. Give people the benefit of the doubt. Let them say whatever they want to say, and make sure you are really listening. Listen and hear, and take that data and turn it into actual insight. Some of our best ideas originate from conversations with employees, vendors and partners.

A great example of empathetic leadership in action was a recent story a colleague shared. One of the company's team members began coming late to work and missing company deadlines. Rather than reprimanding the actions first, the leader at the company asked the employee if something may be causing the issue with their work and performance. It turned out that the employee was navigating a difficult situation in their personal life.

Related: How to Lead With Resilience, Empathy and Vision Despite an Uncertain Future

Within that conversation, the two discussed some ideas and tactics the employee could use to help balance their work with life challenges. It also created a bond between the leader and the employee. The employee felt heard and valued. Soon after, the work issues stopped, and the employee has been a top performer. It can be easy to jump to conclusions or assume the worst when problems arise, but often, some causes may not be immediately evident. Empathetic leadership looks for resolutions and solutions in a different way.

Those who are currently empathetic leaders should continue to strive to expand their abilities. Empathy can sometimes mean acting against your beliefs and putting others ahead of yourself. But, the benefits to your organization and business can be immeasurable.

Dustin Lemick

Entrepreneur Leadership Network® Contributor

CEO of BriteCo

Dustin Lemick is the CEO of BriteCo, a leading insurance provider offering best-in-class jewelry and watch insurance. With 10+ years of insurance experience and a comprehensive background in retail jewelry, his expertise spans insurance operations, underwriting, and retail pricing models.

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