How does empathy make leaders more effective?May 26, 2022
Why is Empathy widely understood to be a fundamental capacity of effective leadership? If you conduct a quick search on Google or Amazon you’ll find thousands of books and articles on empathy, many of them also referencing leadership. Surprisingly, given the power and inter-related skills and frameworks of Empathy, many of these sources described only one aspect of empathy: “the ability to feel with another person.” Some sources added perspective-taking or a variation of “imagining the other’s viewpoint” to this definition.
We’d like to share a more thorough definition below to bring clarity to this discussion, and to frame the power and skill that makes empathy essential for leaders.
What Is Empathy?
Empathy is a complex blend of emotional intelligence skills and relationship mastery skills that help us relate to both ourselves and others effectively and adaptively. Skillful empathy synthesizes intellect, emotion and action to understand and respond to an event, person or situation with awareness, self-regulation and adaptability. Skilled empathy is based on a framework that seeks to better understand the perspectives, interpretations, motivators, emotions and needs of others to help communicate or interact with them more effectively.
In simple terms, it’s the capacity to understand how another person might have a different perspective than yours, and how they might feel or act based on their perspective, even if you don’t understand how they arrived at their perspective.
How Does Empathy Make Leaders More Effective?
Organizations are made up of people who work together in their roles as members of teams, in workgroups and in departments and as leaders. The effectiveness of the organization and its ability to achieve its purpose is highly dependent on the strength of these relationships. Leaders (whether by role or assignment) bring direction, vision and mission. Through the power or authority of their role, their interactions influence those they lead and support.
It’s not enough to hope that these relationships will be strong or to encourage people to be diplomatic or be positive. The skills, tools and mindsets of Empathic Leadership bring the power and capacity to build trust, increase resilience, and develop environments and relationships that bring out people’s best strengths.
Trust is built over time and can be lost more quickly than it is built. Neuroscience research provides compelling motivation: in human biology, it takes five positive interactions to even out the effect of one negative interaction. Empathy skills can help leaders choose more wisely between empathic and non-empathic responses in their interactions.
Communication Awareness: Illusions, Learning, and Telling
Common communication traps and dialogue breakpoints can suddenly and bewilderingly derail relationships and projects, especially under time and resource pressures. Being aware of these and how to navigate them saves time and energy and helps build relationships. As George Bernard Shaw famously wrote, “The single biggest problem in communication is the illusion that it has taken place.”
One of these traps is unconsciously assuming that telling is the same as communicating. As leaders, we can find ourselves telling or reminding our teams even if we aren’t getting the results we want. In Empathic Leadership, we bring an adaptive learning framework to these moments, to shift from asking why isn’t my team doing what I want them to do — to asking what might be getting in the way, and seeking to understand the disconnect. This framework doesn’t mean the decision needs to change, but that there might be something helpful you could learn from your team about other factors in relation to this project.
Moving from Conflict to Collaboration
Empathic Leadership skills are especially helpful in conflict moments and high-stakes situations. When a conflict arises, being able to see the other party’s perspective will help you make wise choices. It can provide insight into why they are behaving as they are, if you can help them with learning, or learn something yourself, and what might have been contributing to the conflict.
A person who feels understood is more open to considering new information or perspectives. Our approach helps leaders achieve an internal knowing of this through the experiential training we provide
These are high-level skills, attained through first developing knowledge and skillsets followed by synthesizing them experientially in real-life scenarios.
The Ability to Understand People is at the Core of Business
Empathy is not a soft skill. It requires discipline and rigor to sort through all the variables in our human environment and interactions to identify the key factors that influence relationships. It’s not about being touchy-feely or too nice.
It’s about making decisions, taking responsibility for them, knowing how and when to seek input or information from others, and understanding what information or factors others would need to know about.
Bringing listening skills doesn’t mean endless hours of listening aimlessly to others, but about learning to listen and ask questions to get to the essence of something.
It’s not touchy-feely to notice a person hesitating in response to your request. This empathic awareness can lead you to ask whether there are factors that would make it challenging to accomplish, and lead to developing early alternatives. A non-empathic response might be to increase pressure on the person to say yes and thus delay learning about potential issues.
Empathy Is Quicker Than Avoidance
Some people might think they don’t have time for this. With ever-growing lists of responsibilities, who has time for empathy? We have things we need to get done! It might even be a challenge to slow down enough to reflect on it sufficiently, so we offer a few helpful reflections here:
If there’s a conflict, most people will have already spent significant time thinking about it, worrying about it, potentially feeling upset about it and the energy it consumes.
Avoidance and conflict lead to indecision and inaction and uncertainty. Being able to have the conversation will lead to possible solutions or if solutions aren’t possible, to being able to re-direct energy to alternatives.
Most importantly, with empathic skills, it is possible to wisely prepare for a conversation, to enter it with calm and confidence. And empathic skills make the conversation more effective and productive, and frequently much shorter than anticipated.
Given the choice, developing Empathic Leadership skills is a worthwhile and time-saving investment that will continue to pay dividends.