Over the last several years, there has been no shortage of information about the importance of soft skills in today’s work environment. Empathy often leads the list of the most vital soft skills. A recent study by Development Dimensions International (DDI), a leading global leadership development company, compiled research involving over 15,000 leaders from 300 different organizations. In this study, which measured the leadership conversational skills having the most impact on overall performance, leading with empathy ranked number one.

The DDI study is not alone in confirming the power of empathy.

Leading with EmpathyIn a contribution to CLO (Chief Learning Officer) Magazine, leadership expert, Ken Blanchard shared, “Being sensitive to others’ feelings — recognizing ourselves in each other — opens the door to trust.”

In a 2011 speech at Brigham Young University, Facebook’s Mark Zuckerberg stated that empathy was a guiding principle of his company. He believes that the number of Facebook connections symbolizes “empathy developing in the world” that will lead to “a greater understanding of how we are all connected.”

Empathy is at the heart of servant leadership. It is an essential skill that encourages active listening, transparency, and provides a leader an opportunity to demonstrate authenticity.

Dr. Stephen Covey’s best-selling book, The 7 Habits of Highly Effective People, includes the habit of, Seek First to Understand, Then to Be Understood®, and to be able to do this effectively, you need empathy.

Empathy is not sympathy.

It can be easy to confuse the two terms. Jacob Morgan, leading author and expert on the future of work commented on how organizations can confuse the two terms:

A lot of times we confuse empathy with sympathy. In the past organizations have been good with being sympathetic to employees, but in the future of work, it is empathy, not sympathy that is crucial for organizations to have. Sympathy is feeling sorry for someone else’s circumstances, empathy on the other hand, is the ability to understand and share the feelings of others. It means putting yourself in someone else’s shoes to not just say you feel sorry for them, but to actually imagine how hard it must be to be in that situation.

There are proven benefits to being a leader who understands the importance of empathy. Empathy is not a weakness, it is a leadership strength.

Leading With Empathy Increases Engagement & Reduces Turnover

One of the core elements of employee engagement is providing a sense of belonging within the organization. Empathetic leaders are more likely to develop a deeper bond with their team members. These leaders walk alongside their people. This deeper connection creates an environment of open communication and transparency. People are less concerned about “fearing” if their leader will understand. They are more motivated to share opinions and information.

Other benefits of leading with empathy include:

  • higher employee satisfaction rates
  • reduced turnover
  • better performance
  • increased profitability
  • higher levels of loyalty and customer satisfaction

Empathy matters and has a direct impact on engagement and talent retention. According to the 2017 Businessolver Workplace Empathy Monitor:

  • The majority (85%) of employees agree that empathy is often undervalued.
  • 60% of employees surveyed would be willing to take slightly less pay if their employer showed empathy.
  • 77% of employees would be willing to work longer hours for an empathetic employer.
  • Employee turnover is driven by a lack of empathy. 72% of employees would consider leaving their current company if they displayed less empathy.
  • Empathy reduces turnover. 92% of employees would be more likely to stay with a company that empathizes with their needs.

Leading With Empathy Influences Culture

Empathetic Leaders create a workplace culture that encourages collaboration, transparency, values, and a greater sense of purpose. When empathy is a core value, it impacts a company culture at a foundational level. Having a culture where empathy is a core value impacts recruiting efforts. According to UndercoverRecruiter.com,

Empathy can impact your company culture on a deep level, so it should be a key component of everything from team leadership to customer relations.

A culture that has empathy as an attribute is beneficial in attracting new talent to an organization. As long as workplaces have humans, life events will happen, and empathic leaders understand the importance of their people being able to count on them in good and bad times.

A culture that is influenced by empathetic leadership has strong open communication streams, a safe environment that is free of fear, and a genuine interest and concern for everyone. Understanding your people as individuals is a strength of an effective leader. Each person has unique gifts, experiences, and talents that make them who they are.

Increasing & Cultivating Empathy

Empathy comes more naturally for some than others. It can be developed, like a muscle. Regular exercise is needed to build its potential. Developing a culture of empathy does not happen overnight. There are a few things that leaders can do to develop their empathy. This will have an impact on your culture over time.

There are two approaches that I use when working with clients who have a desire to improve their empathy and create a culture that is emblematic of their empathetic leadership. These approaches are personal and organizational.

Personal Empathy Development

The personal approach involves working with a leader in finding their empathy or learning how to apply it to their leadership style. Helping a leader measure and understand their self-awareness, blind spots, and level of self-expression are starting points for understanding the degree of empathy used in their leadership.

This approach requires the leader to be honest with who they truly are.

Since we are all wired differently, we use different degrees of empathy. How empathy is used can be situational to events and individuals. It is more common for a leader to demonstrate a higher level of empathy with a family member than with a work peer. One situation may also require a higher level of empathy than another. It is crucial to understand the level of empathy desired by the person needing your understanding.

Organizational Empathy Development

The second approach to helping leaders build empathy involves the development of an organizational culture that is reflective of their focus on empathic leadership. A great place to start is to implement some initiatives that are supported by this type of leadership approach. Remember, you can experiment to see what works within your organization. Not all ideas will fit every work environment, so customization is a great idea. Here are a few ideas:

  • Launch a mentoring program. This program would align people within the organization with a senior level peer or manager who can be a great listener and idea generator.
  • Invest in coaching. This could be a formal, internal coaching program or using the resources of external coaches.
  • Develop a passion for learning. Development of your talent should always be a priority with leaders. If your people do not grow, neither does your organization.
  • Recognize your people. People want to know they did a great job. They also need to know they are valued. This has nothing to do with their compensation. Learn how your people need to be recognized.

Leaders who allow empathy to influence their organization also understand the importance of celebrating successes and supporting failures. You have to be with your team members in the great, good, and really bad times.

How you support your people is a hallmark of leading with empathy.

They will remember how you demonstrated your leadership during all of these times. Many exit surveys have echoed the horror stories of leaders who demonstrated little or no empathy. You do not have to leave a legacy of being uncaring and aloof.

Being an empathetic leader does not make you weak. Your impact will be reflected by increased employee engagement, stronger communications, lower turnover, and an enhanced “word of mouth” about your organization. Empathy takes time to develop, and it can be more challenging for some leaders.

Remember, your approach to empathy needs to be authentic. If leading with empathy is not part of your natural leadership style, and you start applying too much, you may experience an initial lack of trust. Empathy is also shown in your actions and not just words. Make sure your approach to becoming an empathetic leader is genuine.


Leading with Empathy, Leading with Empathy

Steve Graham

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