We’ve all heard of the soft skill “works well with others.” But what does that mean? And what role does empathy play in it? In today’s world, being a successful leader is more than simply focusing on the big picture and ROI. It often means managing diverse teams across a spectrum of circumstances. Empathy has evolved from being a “nice to have” to an imperative for effective leadership. Empathetic leadership allows teams to thrive during times of disruption and fosters a sense of belonging with employees.
The Importance of EmpathyOur brains are built for empathy. And when we give in to that natural impulse, everyone wins. Here are a few reasons why:
Loyalty: Retaining talent is a primary issue organizations face today. Many employees cite a lack of care and support from leadership. Thankfully, empathy helps. When leaders empathize with their teams, they build trust. Trust helps employees feel valued, and as that sense of appreciation grows, company loyalty does too.
Engagement: When you genuinely care about others, they’re more likely to care about you. The same goes for the workplace. Employees will work harder for a company that engages with them.
Cooperation: When leaders value empathy, their employees are far more likely to follow their example. This modeled behavior leads to better team cooperation and fewer interpersonal issues.
Happiness: It’s a simple fact that when a person is appreciated, they feel happier. And happier employees are more productive and less likely to show signs of quiet quitting. Leading with empathy is a direct path to a more satisfied workforce.
Creativity: When you blend all the previous benefits, you create a work environment in which employees are eager to challenge themselves and feel the psychological safety needed to take risks that lead to true innovation. When people bring their best selves to work, they do their best work.
Analyzing data from 6,731 managers across 38 countries, the Center for Creative Leadership found that empathy worked both up and down the ladder: Empathetic managers were viewed more positively by their subordinates and superiors.
Make sure to keep the differences between empathy and sympathy in mind. Where sympathy means feeling sorry for someone else’s struggles, empathy involves being able to feel someone else’s feelings or “walk a mile in their shoes.”
How Can Leaders Grow Their Capacity for Empathy?Empathy is an active trait. Though almost everyone can empathize with others, putting it into practice takes intention and work. Thankfully, empathy works like a muscle. The more you exercise it, the stronger it’ll get. To become a more empathetic leader, try incorporating these methods:
- Practice active listening. Active listening means paying close attention to your tone and body language, asking good questions, not interrupting, and carefully considering what the other person is saying before you speak.
- Be present. You can’t be empathetic if you aren’t paying attention. Avoid distractions and concentrate on fully interacting with someone. Take a break from checking your watch or phone and remain in the moment.
- Mind your judgment of others. Open-mindedness is critical for empathy, which means leaving judgments about the right or wrong of someone else’s feelings at the door. Instead, view others with compassion while seeking understanding.
Encourage everyone to speak up. Once you’re paying attention, you might notice a few team members who struggle to share as much as others. Try to ask those people for their ideas and opinions. Be curious! Just because they’re quiet doesn’t mean they don’t have great ideas to contribute. Making space for your team to share their ideas and concerns without fear of retaliation helps foster psychological safety and a sense of belonging.
Empathy Breeds InnovationThe computer, the smartphone, medical advancements, and the moon landing—none of humanity’s greatest inventions or feats happened in isolation. When bringing big ideas to life, we need each other. We need cooperation. And most of all, we need empathy. What’s the real purpose of innovation? We pair it down to a single concept: meeting needs. We’ve all heard the saying “necessity breeds invention,” but as organizations look toward the future in our complex and interconnected world, we must determine which necessities we should focus on.
Empathy is how we get there. Empathy is not only about trying to understand how others are feeling. It’s also an essential component in the workplace. Empathetic leaders convey that an organization does not revolve around revenue. It’s about the people.