How important is empathy as a quality for effective leadership?
To answer this question, first we should be clear on empathy in the context of leadership. The global Center for Creative Leadership suggests that it’s a leader’s ability to relate to employees’ thoughts, emotions and experiences. The Center explains that nearly 50 per cent of managers in today’s management pool are ineffective. One reason is a skills gap related to empathy.
Empathy is an important micro skill for leaders. It enables them to be open and to understand what their employees are thinking. Empathetic leaders make sure that they create the possibilities for their followers to share their thoughts. It is really important that a leader thinks about the impact he/she might have on his/her team, as this can influence their overall effectiveness within the team. The leader-team member relationship is one of the most important for every follower, it directly impacts their experience in the workplace and their productivity.
Those team members who don’t feel or don’t believe their leader cares about them, can build up anxiety and worry about their leaders’ reaction in different situations. This can have negative effect on their performance.
As you are starting your way on the path of leadership, you should consider the following:
- Truly listen. Empathetic leaders don’t just listen but truly listen. There’s a big difference. True listening means listening with open ears, open eyes and an open heart. It means paying attention to body language, to tone of voice, to the hidden emotions behind what’s being said. You’ll always gain more from listening than from speaking.
- Don’t interrupt. – Giving people the space to say what they have to say is an important form of empathy.
- Be fully present. – Don’t look at your watch or try to grasp your phone, don’t let distracted yourself. Concentrate on putting yourself in their shoes and think of ways you can be supportive.
- Leave judgment behind. – As an empathetic leader you do not look at the feelings of your followers, as you would need to agree or disagree with them. You just simply see that as a window into what their perception and world view of certain things is. You see your team members’ feelings as an opportunity to better understand what they’re experiencing and expressing.
- Watch body language. – In many cases body language communicates much more than words. Make sure you pay attention to your team members’ gestures, remain open and listen, lean in when people speak and show interest.
- Encourage the quiet ones. – Always pay attention also to those who are sitting quietly for example at meetings. Through this act you will empower everyone around you, not only the quieter once. Encourage people to have their say!
- Take a personal interest. – Empathetic leaders show real curiosity about the lives of their team members. They ask questions, not on professional level, but personally. In this way they can build strongest relationships which will benefit both the leader and his/her follower.
To sum up all the above, if your goal is to become an empathetic leader, which you know will benefit both you and your team, let alone your enterprise, you should lead with the following in mind: Empathy is an emotional and thinking muscle that becomes stronger with use. It doesn’t come across as weak but as the best kind of strength.