Why Empathetic Leadership Is More Important Than Ever Understanding and sharing the feelings of others is emerging as a critical leadership trait, but how can you be sure you are truly empathetic, and not just sympathetic?
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Empathy, which has often been overlooked as a "soft skill", has recently become an increasingly vital characteristic for effective leaders, a trend spurred in large part by the need to maintain productive staffs during Covid-19. With the world arcing into increased unpredictability (including post-pandemic effects, as well as also more variable weather and storm patterns, tinged by increasingly rancorous politics), people are facing higher levels of stress, anxiety and depression. One result is that customers, employees, partners and peers need empathy, and will appreciate a leader who goes the extra mile to show it. And this isn't just conjecture: A recent Catalyst study of 900 employees revealed that leaders who practice empathy will have a more engaged and higher-performing team, as well as a more profitable business overall.
What does it mean to be an empathetic leader?
But what exactly does it mean to be an empathetic leader? How does this manifest in our behavior? And how do we distinguish between empathy and sympathy? As Dr. Brené Brown explains, "Empathy is a choice, and it's a vulnerable one".
Emotional empathy has been shown to be more of a genetic trait, as opposed to a learned behavior, but that doesn't mean we can't all practice empathy and become better at it, especially among those for whom it is not hardwired. So, take the opportunity to make it a choice, and you may find it becomes second nature.
Empathy is all about understanding what another person is going through — trying to put oneself in the shoes of another and feeling compassion for what they might be experiencing. Sympathy, however, is showing understanding for someone's situation, but from your perspective, not theirs. The former helps people feel included, not just acknowledged. It's easier to be sympathetic (we can all remember times we felt for someone's situation), but to truly practice empathy, it's necessary to dig deeper.
To be a genuinely empathetic leader, you need to be able to first show a level of understanding. This requires actively listening to what someone is dealing with, and asking the right questions to gain deeper understanding. Such a leader will be one who takes time to regularly check in with a team, and uses the time to see, dimensionally, how people are doing —not just with work tasks, but also in terms of their broad mental health. If you are not someone who naturally does this, it's useful to schedule regular check-ins to catch up with key employees, partners and customers to see what they might stressing about and how you might help. Otherwise, before you know it, a key employee has quit, and you'll wish you saw it coming. Finding time to talk on a personal level is not just a good thing to do for a team, it can make a difference to the business's bottom line as well, as it fosters a sense of inclusivity.
Embrace emotionally engaged approaches without judgment
It's vital, while embracing these more emotionally engaged approaches, to do so without judgement. Once you start to offer opinions about someone's situation (however well intentioned), you are no longer being empathetic. Sympathetic, perhaps, but you've also missed an important opportunity to create a safe space for people to share. Many times, people are not looking for an answer to a problem; they simply want to be able to share, and have someone take the time to appreciate and understand what they are going through. So, resist the temptation to jump in and problem-solve. Engage in active listening —- pay attention, have an open and receptive attitude, make eye contact, turn off your phone, and whatever you do, don't watch the clock. This is hard in our multi-tasking day, but will make all the difference in how a person interprets the conversation.
Even though the world is largely virtual these days, it's also helpful to be able to meet in person (or at least via Zoom). Some people have a hard time sharing challenges or struggles; your ability to sense what's going on in their lives is greatly enhanced by absorbing body language, then asking clarifying questions to get a deeper sense of how they are feeling.
Asking for feedback is a great way to see if these empathy muscles are working well, or not. It's easy, and natural, to conclude that they are, but the person on the other side might not see it that way. So, let yourself be vulnerable and open to feedback, including constructive criticism.
In my experience, leaders who embrace the above advice will create stronger human connections that will help people and their businesses. And you never know… you might be the one who needs empathy one day.