Empathy, like humility, is one of the most underrated superpowers of leadership today. It is more than a buzzword or a trend that people are craving due to the impact of the pandemic. We live in a world where diversity, equity, and inclusion finally have a seat at the table, where there is much less tolerance for autocratic “my-way-or-the-highway” leadership, or even for basic rudeness in the workplace. But what does leadership with empathy really look like in action, and how can one become more empathetic if that is not an innate character trait?
Empathy vs Sympathy
Empathy and sympathy are often confused with each other. Empathy is listening, understanding, and relating to how other people feel. This is different than sympathy, which is feeling sorry for someone, but not necessarily fully comprehending their situation. Sympathy also does not seek to elevate a person or resolve their issues, nor is it called for (in the case of death, for example) whereas empathy reflects, engages, and then seeks improvement.
A Core Value
Empathetic leadership is more than offering a mental wellness benefit program. It is a distinct leadership style based on a core value that infuses a company’s culture and how it conducts business with its stakeholders. It is part of its overall brand. Empathic leadership fosters a uniquely collaborative, entrepreneurial, and apolitical work environment that improves retention, productivity, and success. These leaders walk with their people, are approachable yet maintain their authority, and make them feel safe to share their ideas.
Actions Speak Louder Than Words
It is one thing to make statements that reflect your empathy, but it is another to actually do something. Empathy in action is understanding an employee’s struggles and engaging with them to implement a better solution. Empathetic leaders make the connection between saying and doing, and they know one cannot exist without the other. Empathy is putting yourself in someone else’s shoes and then doing something differently because of it.
Arrow in Your Quiver
Empathy is going out of your way to support a person regardless of your situation. It is not about helping someone when it’s only convenient for you. It’s taking the time to select a thoughtful gift for someone instead of getting a gift card (unless that’s what they really want). You may have a full agenda to deal with but leading with empathy is like an antenna that lets you see issues that can change your priorities for the better. Being empathetic may not always be convenient, but it can be a real arrow in your quiver.
The Real Deal
Empathetic leadership must be authentic. It’s not something you can strap on or play act because people will see through it. The fact is though, empathy may not be a core strength for every leader, and it takes time to develop. Coaching can help the open-minded leader develop the self-awareness to identify situations that should trigger empathetic reactions. This means being truly honest with oneself, uncovering personal blind spots and learning new ways to communicate. It can be very hard work; it takes time and practice.
Leadership Empathy in Practice
Empathetic leaders make a concerted effort to observe body language and interaction in every meeting or encounter. Working in a virtual world makes connection even harder and requires leaders to listen even more carefully, to talk less, and draw people into the dialogue. Challenge yourself to get out and in front of a co-worker’s negative feelings. Proactively sensing that someone is not in a good place shows tremendous empathy towards understanding and resolving issues and building trust.
Organizational Empathy in Practice
Companies that behave empathetically have programs that naturally foster and reward empathetic behavior. This includes employee recognition programs for outstanding performance in adverse or challenging conditions. Mentoring and investing in leadership coaching for key employees is encouraged. They also support a learning environment and allocate budget to invest in their employees’ personal professional development.