Empathy is one of the most important soft skills a leader can develop to thrive in today’s VUCA world. Data shows, however, that it is not an easy skill for leaders to master. Businessolver’s Workplace Empathy Study reveals a misalignment between CEOs and employees. For instance, only 48% of employees believe their company is empathetic compared to 68% of CEOs.
Businessolver also found that 58% of CEOs say they struggle to consistently demonstrate empathy in the workplace.
What is empathy and why is it important for leaders?
Empathy is the capacity to share and understand the feelings of another. To be empathetic means to be aware of, and sensitive to, the feelings of someone else by placing yourself in their shoes. Empathy can be difficult to learn because it requires several other soft skills such as good communication and listening ability, that many leaders are not trained in.
In some ways, empathy is a type of meditation. It requires you to tune out your thoughts and feelings about an experience or situation so that you can be fully present for someone else. When we interviewed Scilla Elworthy, a Three Times Nobel Peace Prize nominee, she noted how leaders who do not work on their inner emotions can unconsciously project their critical thoughts when talking to others.
Our CEO, Thom Dennis explains why empathetic leadership is crucial for navigating the many issues businesses face in HR Zone. Thom describes how empathy ‘enables psychological safety from which resilience, innovation and creativity come.’
Thom further states, ‘By consistently practising empathy, we can improve our ability to manage and respond to emotional experiences… This means that we can become more equipped to handle stressful or emotionally challenging situations and have better tools to handle future problems.’
In 2021, 50 CEOs of leading companies gathered for a Summit by the CEO Forum Group to discuss creative approaches to address current challenges. The CEOs agreed that the pandemic has brought ‘a new era of empathy’.' The summary of the event further states that ‘empathy will be integral to their business success and driving toward strong reputation outcomes.’
Various studies prove the organisational benefits of empathetic leadership. Empathy can boost productivity and collaboration and encourage diversity and inclusion. When Google put together Project Aristotle, they found empathy was the secret to a successful team. With great listening skills and an ability to understand non-verbal cues, empathetic leaders can quickly identify hidden issues impacting team performance.
How leaders can connect empathy and results
Recognise that empathy is a skill that requires daily practice – Great leaders frequently practise empathy by consistently finding ways to show openness, honesty and transparency. The more you become open and vulnerable with your team, the more you will develop empathy for people.
Frequently check-in – From our experience, the best CEOs and executives frequently talk to staff and fellow colleagues under pressure. They are human-focused and show genuine care towards people.
Consciously engage with what others might be thinking - It’s not uncommon for people to communicate and react to a conversation based on their immediate thoughts and feelings, without considering what the person they’re engaging with could be thinking. Leaders can build their emotional intelligence by consciously pausing to reflect on a situation from another’s perspective.
Celebrate typical feminine and masculine traits – Traits such as empathy and care are typically associated with feminine stereotypes while masculinity is linked to logic and ambition. Leaders can help break down these notions by equally celebrating and rewarding soft and hard skills. Leaders of any gender must demonstrate their own nurturing side to encourage employees to follow suit.
Work on inner emotions – Scilla Elworthy noted that any type of leadership requires self-awareness and self-knowledge. When leaders understand themselves and learn to not be overly self-critical, they can become conscious of their own inner feelings. With this, they can learn to not project those feelings towards people they are communicating with. A daily reflection practice, meditation and yoga can all help build self-awareness.
Exhibit good listening skills – Leaders can demonstrate effective listening skills by showing curiosity, asking relevant questions and keeping the line of communication open by consistently checking in. The way in which a person responds after listening has the power to form as well as permanently break trust.