There are a lot of reports out there citing the importance of empathy in leaders. It is frequently listed as one of the top skills companies are seeking in their senior (C suite) leaders. Is this all part of a trend for leaders to be nicer? What does empathy really mean, how is it used, and why should anyone care? If you’re interested in the answers, keep reading.
Let’s start with the basics. A lot of people tend to confuse sympathy and empathy and compassion. While they are all related, they are different. Understanding these differences is important for leaders. They need to be able to clarify which is needed in each scenario. So, here are some brief descriptions.
Sympathy is having an awareness of the emotional situation and expressing a recognition of that awareness. Think of the typical sympathy card. It provides an acknowledgement of a loss.
Empathy takes sympathy a step further. Along with acknowledging the situation, it expresses an ability to see things from the other person’s perspective and show that you understand how it is affecting them.
Compassion is the third stage. This is where you are aware, understand, and are motivated to take action. This is much more than sending a card or flowers. Compassion is about volunteering your time and assistance or becoming an advocate for the person.
“True empathy requires that you step outside your own emotions to view things entirely from the perspective of the other person.” Anonymous
Empathy in Leadership
I hope this doesn’t surprise you, but being a leader doesn’t mean the world revolves around you. Being a leader means you need to help others reach their potential and excel at their work. Leaders know how to bring out the best in each individual employee or team member. They know how to adjust and adapt their approach based on how the team is feeling. This is what allows leaders to bring out the best in their team.
Paying attention to the people around you matters. Leaders must be able to put themselves into the shoes (empathy) of their employees in order to gauge stress levels and morale. Then they need to adjust their own expectations to show they are aware (sympathy) of the morale. And if they want to improve the situation, they must then get involved and create actions (compassion) that will support their team members and help them function better.
“Leadership is about empathy. It is about having the ability to relate to and connect with people for the purpose of inspiring and empowering their lives.” Oprah Winfrey
Empathy has become a leadership buzz word because it incorporates awareness and understanding. It puts the leader in a position to know if action is needed or not. Depending upon the cause of the distress, the leader may or may not even be able to take any actions that could improve the situation. Sometimes all you can do is show that you see things from another’s perspective, and you understand what is taking place. That is why empathy gets the most attention.
Strategies to Build Empathy
Empathetic leaders tend to have teams that are more engaged, more loyal, more creative, and generally happier. Empathy can be a learned behavior. And there ways to help create an environment or culture of empathy within your teams. Here are a few strategies to get you started.
Experience the Grind
You may have come up through the ranks and have a personal reference of what life is like for your team members. You know the tasks they are responsible for each day and you may have a good idea of what it takes to perform those tasks. But how old is your perspective? Things change fast nowadays. When was the last time you spent the day working with your team members as they go through their day?
Note of warning. When you do this, make sure you are there in a learning capacity and that your team understands this. You are not there to judge or micromanage. You can make process suggestions later. The purpose of this exercise is to become aware of the emotional factors, including stress, that your team experiences daily.
“The highest form of knowledge is empathy.” Bill Bullard
It is incredibly difficult to know what is going on with your team if they don’t feel safe in coming and talking to you. Leaders must establish a culture of communication where everyone is free to express their concerns without fear of retribution.
Take a Break
Sometimes you need to step out of your everyday environment to get a fresh perspective. Observing other teams, watching their emotional behavior, and seeing how their leaders react can provide you new insights to your own team and approach.
Check Your Bias
We all have bias; our preferences and beliefs on how the world should work. Some we are aware of and others linger in our subconscious. Bias guides our thought and actions. The more you can identify what is guiding you, the more open you can be to recognize when one of those bias might be the cause of distress to your team.
Which of these strategies do you already have in place? Which ones do you need to develop more? Take some time to think through your level of empathy and if you are cultivating a team that demonstrates empathy. Consider asking your team which of these strategies you might need to strengthen. This is a great way to open the door to discussing empathy with your team.
Putting It All Together
While empathy is the buzz word getting all the attention right now, sympathy, empathy, and compassion are all needed in leadership. Different situations call for different responses and knowing which ones will best meet the needs of your team is a critical skill for leaders. Not every situation and not every person will be the same, so leaders must remain flexible. But the first step is always to have the pulse on the emotions of those you work with.
You must nurture your team. Great teams have strong emotional IQ and exhibit empathy for their fellow team members. Leaders are responsible for setting the example for the team behaviors they want. You must lead from a place of awareness and understanding, and when needed a place of action. Great leaders have the emotional IQ to know which response is needed.