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In leadership and management, is showing empathy an ethical choice or a moral responsibility? Can taking a softer approach really deliver a strong impact when it comes to performance and profit?
We explore some of the reasons why leaders should be thinking about adjusting their style and why embracing an empathetic mindset can deliver deeper returns for the business which might otherwise not be fully realised.
What is empathy?
Empathy is the ability to understand and share the feelings or thoughts of others. Essentially an umbrella term for three states of thinking and being, it is associated to the ways we connect with one another and our emotions. Cognitive empathy is the ability to understand how a person feels and what they might be thinking, while emotional empathy relates to the ability to share the feelings of another. Compassionate empathy or empathic concern goes further, with us moving to take action to help if we can.
The need for empathy in the workplace
Barack Obama said back in 2006 that the empathy deficit was more of a problem than the federal deficit. Fast forward to now, and recent events have tested our perceptions of empathy like never before. From the pandemic to racial and social injustices, the need to come together has never been greater.
This deficit is still having ramifications in the workplace as well as in our personal lives. So big is the issue, that Josh Bersin, the much-respected global industry analyst who covers all areas of human resources, leadership, and the changing world of work, coined the phrase Chief Empathy Officer in the early stages of the covid pandemic as leaders in crisis mode focused on empathy and compassion first, business second.
More recently, new research from Workplace from Facebook highlights that empathetic leadership is now needed to retain top talent in UK organisations and that there is a clear shift in the characteristics employees want to see in leaders. Its findings include:
- 58% would consider leaving their job if leaders failed to show empathy to employee needs
- Over a quarter had already considered resigning for this reason
- 32% felt communications from leadership during the pandemic were cold and impersonal
- 31% claimed leaders didn’t show empathy towards people’s personal lives
- Over a third agreed that qualities like bravado and tough leadership were important pre-pandemic, but the majority now think an empathetic and authentic leadership team is more important
Karen Smart, head of consultancy with the AoEC remarks: “The skill of forming and leveraging human-to-human relationships in the workplace is a powerful differentiator when it comes to good leadership. The workplace can be a lonely place where an empathy gap exists between the leadership team and the employees. Empathy can be the social glue that binds the two together. It helps create a safe space, lets us be fully present, builds connections for better collaboration and creates a path forward at a time where there is so much uncertainty in the world.”
How do you develop empathy?
Empathy is a trait hardwired into most of us and a core component of emotional intelligence. While our own struggles or biases can get in the way and dominate our thinking and behaviour, the good news is that it is possible to consciously develop empathy.
Learning comes by doing and using knowledge gained from making mistakes. It also comes from having better self-awareness. Tried and tested means also include adopting a coaching style of leading with the emphasis on skills such as being a good listener. Focusing on what is being said and rephrasing back to the speaker what you have heard can be an incredibly powerful technique of forging good quality rapport and meaningful connections with others.
Benefits of an empathetic style of management and leadership
Society’s expectations for business are changing. As McKinsey says “Transparency, empathy and meaning – timeless and increasingly timely – are all starting to define a new leadership benchmark.”
There is a real desire for change and leaders and managers should be bowing to the deeper human needs of their employees. Higher empathy delivers better knowledge sharing and finds common ground to bring win-win situations and measurable results.
Benefits for organisations include higher productivity, organisational growth, an improved financial performance, and better collaboration within the business. Leaders need to galvanise their teams to get the job done and an empathetic style of leading fortifies wellbeing, resilience, trust, and psychological safety. It is a proven element in boosting employee morale and motivation because human beings will work harder if they are made aware of the positive impact of the work they are contributing.
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