People want an empathetic leader. Many managers strive to be one. But ask someone to define the term, and you’re likely to be met with silence.
Let’s start with the definition. According to Merriam-Webster, empathy means “the action of understanding, being aware of, being sensitive to, and vicariously experiencing the feelings, thoughts, and experience of another.”
The logical question is: why is being empathetic an important quality of a leader? It seems to have nothing in common with achieving tasks or succeeding in the workplace.
The importance of being an empathetic leader starts with the simple truth that leadership is about people. If you’re going to lead effectively, you must be attuned to your people’s thoughts, feelings, and beliefs. This translates into creating real partnerships rather than exerting power. It means walking alongside your team members and guiding them in the direction you need them to go.
Why Empathetic Leaders Are Needed Now
The topic of empathetic leadership has been getting a lot of press lately, mostly due to the adverse effects of the pandemic. COVID has bruised people in many ways: losing a loved one, losing a job, pay cuts, health problems, and on and on.
People are reevaluating their relationship with work in the wake of the pandemic. Some are deciding life’s too short to leave their spirit at the door and endure long workdays just to bring home a paycheck. They want an environment that nourishes them in a profound way.
The Empathy Deficit
Forbes says empathy is the most important leadership skill, but only 40% of people rate their leaders as being empathetic. It’s tricky to single out one skill as being the most important—anyone can argue that other skills deserve top billing. That qualifier aside, this statistic reveals a huge disconnect between what people want and what their leaders are providing.
But leading with empathy isn’t easy. If empathetic leadership were part of a college curriculum, it would be a 200-level class. It presumes that people have all the basics down—and many leaders don’t.
Leaders are often promoted to their roles based on their success as an individual contributor. But being a first-time manager requires a whole new set of skills—for example, emotional intelligence—that are more important than technical expertise. Many managers either haven’t had the opportunity to develop these skills, are resistant to doing so, or don’t have an interest in them.
When you add up all these reasons, it’s easy to see why we have an empathy deficit among leaders and their people.
Becoming an empathetic leader starts with having excellent self-awareness. This requires doing inner work on understanding your motivators, your temperament, and your personality style. It also includes knowing your communication style, your reaction to feedback, and how your values shape your behaviour.
The first step in your journey is investing in your own development. Once you are more self-aware, you can begin to adjust your leadership style to the needs of your people.
Senior executives play a pivotal role in this. They must put organisational resources behind self-awareness initiatives to show they are serious about developing empathetic leaders. Investing in training is an example. Just as important, they need to model the behaviours they want the organisation’s leaders to demonstrate. They also should have caring conversations with managers who don’t appear to be growing into empathetic leaders.
The second part of empathetic leadership is striving for a good understanding of your team members. This includes improving your communication skills, such as being curious in conversations instead of being defensive or aggressive. It also includes learning how to eliminate fear in your interactions with your people—trust cannot survive if there is fear in a relationship.
Building trust with your people is essential if you’re to be an empathetic leader. They must know you are on their side and you mean them no harm. You must show them your role as a leader is to help them succeed. The better you understand your people, the better you’ll be able to serve them in a meaningful way.
Finding practical ways to serve others is a concrete example of empathetic leadership. Our Self Leadership course teaches five points of power you can use to help your people succeed:
Position Power: Having the title or authority to make certain decisions
Task Power: Having control over a task or particular job
Personal Power: Having interpersonal and leadership skills, passion, inspiration, or a personal vision of the future
Relationship Power: Being connected or friendly with other people who have power
Knowledge Power: Having relevant experience, expertise, or credentials
Empathetic leaders use these points of power to build up their people, help them feel safe and secure, and increase their confidence. When leaders do this, their people know they care about them. This opens many doors of possibility.
Empathetic leaders are compassionate and extend grace to others. They know how to walk a mile in someone else’s shoes. But remember: organisations have goals that must be accomplished. Leaders must balance compassion with clear expectations that are understood by every team member.
Leaders who are empathetic place great importance on creating psychological safety—an environment where a person feels free to speak their mind, take risks, and admit mistakes without fear of being punished or reprimanded.
Simple Truth #1 in our book is “Servant leadership is the best way to achieve both great results and great relationships.” Many people have an either/or mindset when it comes to leadership—they focus on either achieving results or developing relationships. You can get both if you set a clear vision and direction for your people, then work side by side serving them in ways that help them accomplish their goals.
Empathetic leaders know how to set clear boundaries that benefit everyone, such as letting people know how many hours a day they’re supposed to work or that sending late-night emails is inappropriate.
When everyone has clarity on work boundaries—including rules and expectations—there is tremendous safety and freedom. Boundaries create a guardrail so people don’t unduly sacrifice themselves to accomplish something. Boundaries also promote autonomy. They let people know what they can and can’t do.
An Empathetic Leader in Action
Seeing an empathetic leader in action turns philosophy into concrete reality. Try to imagine yourself as an empathetic leader who practices the following behaviours on a daily basis.
An empathetic leader:
Asks rather than tells
Listens rather than speaks
Serves rather than commands
Cares about people’s concerns
Is receptive to feedback
Doesn’t overact to people’s questions or concerns
Doesn’t interpret concerns as resistance
When you demonstrate these behaviours, your people will be loyal to you. They’ll be engaged. They’ll give their best effort. They’ll be more innovative. And they’ll speak highly about your organisation to their friends and colleagues.
Call to Action
At its core, empathetic leadership is about being an others-focused leader. It’s about leaders being in tune with the needs of their people and responding in tangible ways that demonstrate their care and concern. And how do people respond when their leaders act this way? They pledge their loyalty, trust, and commitment to that leader, which results in greater productivity, innovation, and creativity. Who wouldn’t want that?
About the authors:
Randy Conley is Vice President of Professional Services and Trust Practice Leader at The Ken Blanchard Companies.