There is a growing belief that the leadership needed today is different from previous generations. The reasons are numerous, but a few to highlight include the stress of the Covid-Pandemic, WFH culture, and the shift from the task economy to the problem-solving economy.
That means one of two things must happen; existing managers trained in traditional management approaches from the ’80s, ’90s, and early 2000s need to develop a different leadership skill set. Or organizations must begin looking for professionals who already look at leadership differently to be in management positions.
While many skills are essential in this new leadership era, empathy is one standing above the rest. Now before you shake empathy off as a weak skill, let’s get clear on what it is in the context of leadership. I have come to define it as, “How well you identify with others to understand their feelings and perceptions in order to guide your actions.” I often describe it to coaching clients as your ability to put yourself in someone else’s shoes and act differently because of it.
While the definition provides clarity, the reason it’s such a critical leadership skill is that the one thing that every professional wants is to be understood, especially by their boss.
Empathy is a critical leadership skill because people want to be understood, especially by their boss.
Understanding the feelings of a team member can be difficult because feelings aren’t always directly communicated. Understanding how someone else is feeling or could be feeling is an art that requires practice.
Why the Best Leaders Have Great Empathy
Most people struggle with empathy. To master it, you have to begin by giving empathy to yourself. Consider the times you’ve been too hard on yourself, perpetuated negative self-talk, or beat yourself up for making a mistake. We’ve all done it.
The best leaders allow themselves and others grace. Their empathy skills have been carefully developed over years of experience and countless learning moments where their empathy failed them. They use what I call their “empathy expertise” in interactions with others because they know its impact on engagement and performance.
Great leaders know empathy impacts employee engagement and performance.
Research backs this up as multiples studies have shown that higher empathy skills lead to an increase in leadership effectiveness and higher organizational performance.
Don’t Confuse Empathy and Sympathy
When coaching leaders about their empathy score in the SkillsLoft Assessment, they often confuse empathy with sympathy. While there are some similarities, one helps you as a leader, and the other is neutral or negative.
Sympathy is having or feeling pity for someone without understanding what it’s like to be in their situation. This doesn’t sound bad on the surface, but without working to understand a team member’s situation and acting accordingly, you run the risk of holding someone back through your pity rather than elevating them. A mentor once told me, “Sympathy is feeling for someone; empathy involves feeling with them.”
As I wrote in Building the Best, “Empathy is only sympathy until you have humility.” Having the humility not to think less of yourself but think of yourself less will help you understand someone else’s situation so you can act accordingly.
How to Lead with Empathy
There should be little doubt now about why empathy is so important in leadership today. It continually is one of the biggest differentiators in leaders who elevate others. Since empathy is a skill that can be developed and refined like many others, here are a few strategies to get better.
Being in the same room with someone and observing them has always been a powerful way to recognize when someone is struggling. However, with the current work from home environment, it makes observing problems 10x harder. This means leaders must listen as their life depends on it.
A few simple strategies include:
- Being where your feet are
- Saying, “tell me more” in coaching conversations.
2. Fulfill Each Team Members Most Basic Work Needs
One of the most popular strategies of highly empathetic leaders might surprise you. They get out ahead of someone’s negative feelings. While this sounds counterintuitive, it actually demonstrates incredible empathy. By using creative methods to fulfill each team member’s most basic work needs, it sets a precedent that “I understand you.”
In the workplace, the most basic professional needs include but aren’t limited to:
- Financial compensation for providing the essentials
- Having enough work to stay busy and engaged
- Creating a sense of belonging and community
- Showing appreciation for work ethic and effort
3. Demonstrate An Ability to Help (Especially When It’s Not Convenient)
Most good people are willing to help someone else when it comes from their excess. While this is great and certainly better than the alternative, helping a team member when it’s not convenient demonstrates great empathy.
Instead of talking about helping, you will be acting on it. This is the second part of the definition of empathy, […] acting differently because of it. I like to ask leaders, “When was the last time you did something for a team member that pleasantly surprised them?”
Just like any great Christmas present demonstrates your understanding of the other person, doing something that surprises a team member in a good way shows you “get” them.
As leadership continues to evolve, skills like empathy will only grow in importance. The question becomes, will you put in the work?
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About the Author: John Eades is the CEO of LearnLoft, a leadership development company helping executives and managers to lead their best. He was named one of LinkedIn’s Top Voices in Management & Workplace. John is also the author of Building the Best: 8 Proven Leadership Principles to Elevate Others to Success. You can follow him on Instagram @johngeades and now on Clubhouse.