“If we hope to meet the moral test of our times, then I think we’re going to have to talk more about The Empathy Deficit. The ability to put ourselves in somebody else’s shoes, to see the world through somebody else’s eyes…” - Barack Obama
‘The real job of a leader,’ says Simon Sinek, ‘is not about being in charge, it’s about taking care of the people in our charge.’ Nothing shows this more than the appreciation for empathetic leadership during the Covid-19 pandemic. No matter what part of the world or which industry they worked in, successful leaders had one quality in common – connecting and caring for their people. They were with us, not above us. They showed us that they were human too. They were empathetic.
But empathy is not just for crises. Reports show that as organisations battle with what is fast becoming a mass resignation in a post-pandemic world, there is one key reason why people are choosing to stay in their workplace, and that’s the compassionate approach of their leaders. In a recent Paychex survey of 1,000 American employees, over 50% said that team leaders don’t acknowledge stress or burnout, with only 44% encouraging honest discussions about work frustrations. As Forbes point out, this is a huge part of why 52% of U.S. employees are considering a job move in 2021.
So, what learnings about empathetic leadership can we take with us into the new world of work? Why is empathy so powerful and, as leaders, how can we use it to inspire, connect and retain teams at a time it’s needed most?
First, we need to look at what empathy really means. At a basic level, empathy is the ability to connect to another human being – using emotional sensitivity to see the world through their eyes and genuinely feel what they’re feeling. Often confused with sympathy – as Dr Brené Brown points out in her famous Ted Talk ‘The power of vulnerability’ – it’s important to differentiate them, as one connects and the other divides. Sympathy looks down from above; setting a distance between you and the person you are being sympathetic to (‘oh dear that sounds terrible – poor you!’). Whereas empathy asks, ‘how are you feeling?’ without judgement. Empathy is not about problem solving or giving unwarranted advice. Nor is it about sugar-coating; sweeping somebody’s problems under the carpet through positive indifference – ‘at least you have a job!’, ‘everything will be fine!’ Sympathy sets you at a level above another person, whereas empathy climbs down to sit beside you.
This can be extra tricky for leaders because, within traditional, hierarchical structures, they are set at a level ‘above.’ But being a truly empathetic leader sometimes means not being a manager or a director or a CEO for a moment. To genuinely walk a mile in someone else’s shoes (or ‘Moccasins’ as the original, 1895 Native American quote where the term was coined), you have to kick off your high status, ‘I’m the one in charge’ shoes; connect at an authentic level and see the world – really see it – through your team member’s eyes.
A soft skill or nice to have - empathy, like many other personal development skills linked to EQ (emotional intelligence), is still not always considered to be a key performance indicator by some organisations. When a task is urgent there’s no time to think about something as fluffy as empathy right? Wrong. The truth is there’s no time not to. The more urgent the needs of your business, the more critical it is to check in with your people. The word ‘soft’ is also misleading. As the Prime Minister of New Zealand Jacinda Ardern said (and demonstrated) during the pandemic, ‘leaders can be both empathetic and strong.’ In fact, empathy is strength. To be vulnerable takes bravery. To be calm and compassionate while the world crumbles around you takes incredible resolve. And it works. From reviewing 6,731 managers in 38 countries, the Center for Creative Leadership saw a direct link to managers’ job performance – with the leaders who were viewed as the most compassionate by their co-workers, also rated the most high performing by their bosses.
In practice, a successful leader utilises what is known as cognitive (or constructive) empathy to cultivate psychological safety in the workplace: the creation of an environment which feels ‘safe’ enough for team members to speak up, question, or challenge the way things are done, without fear. This is all the more important when we consider the importance of diversity of thought: empowering people to bring their true self – and their ideas – to work. As People Director at Insights Anna Hart points out in her blog, diverse teams are able to solve problems faster than teams of cognitively similar people; with inclusive teams making better decisions up to 87% of the time. In order for this diversity to work, however, leaders must use the power of empathy to create an environment that is inclusive and genuinely open to different perspectives and voices.
Destructive, or ‘emotional’ empathy on the other hand, as pointed out here, is not always helpful. While effective for personal relationships, in the workplace, when leaders are too directly involved with the emotions of a team member, they can become overwhelmed – leading to ‘empathy distress’ and in some cases, burnout. Empathy is also not free from bias, with neuroscientists pointing out that many of us will subconsciously feel for people who are most like us without even realising. Keeping a sense of perspective is therefore crucial to empathy’s success in the workplace – seeking to understand every point of view, without becoming attached or overwhelmed.
“Empathy is being concerned about the human being, rather than their output.” - Simon Sinek
So, how do leaders use empathy in a constructive, rather than a destructive, way? The development of cognitive empathy is not a tick box exercise or a language that can be learned like business speak. Empathy needs to be practised; a muscle that builds, flexes and at times, fails - in order to grow and develop. As Simon Sinek points out in his talk ‘Empathy’, the reason we get so many managers and not leaders, is that promotions are so often based on aptitude for a particular skill, rather than their aptitude for people managing. And despite having years of training in the former, they’ll go on to have no training at all in the latter; despite it being the single most essential skill they’ll need.
If the answer is no and you didn’t manage to do those things, be empathetic towards yourself. Treat yourself with the same compassion as one of your team members. The best thing about awareness is being able to keep on learning and reviewing – to see what went well and what you can improve upon. There’s always tomorrow to try again, learn again, and keep on stretching that empathy muscle until you can take on multiple points of view and juggle different team members’ feelings with ease.
Being a leader isn’t easy. As Sinek says, it’s a huge, personal sacrifice. And, contrary to traditional images of ‘tough’ leadership – the kind of authoritarian figure that wiggles their finger at stressed employees wiping the sweat from their brow – not being empathetic is actually not ‘tough’ at all. It’s the easy way out. Leaning in to your emotions, showing your vulnerability, taking time to listen, embracing a new point of view, being genuinely compassionate to each and every team member – this all takes time, patience, courage and stamina. But unlike the many projects or business wins you’ll tick off throughout your career; it’s the people you’re able to have an impact on – and learn from – that really count.
Insights has been developing leaders for almost 30 years by focusing on each leader’s self-awareness, emotional intelligence and relationship-building skills. Our development programmes help leaders first lead themselves, so they can better control how they show up to others. Our latest leadership intervention, the Self-Aware Leader – helps leaders develop the skills and mindset necessary for empathetic leadership and is ideally suited for teams of leaders learning together. Visit our website for more information about our approach to leadership development.