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Empathetic Leadership: A Skill or an Innate Trait?

Nov 1, 2019

What’s the most important quality of a leader? It can be hard to know exactly what makes a good leader, but a good indication is how employees feel about leaders and their qualities. According to a recent study of 5,600 people in 77 organizations, “the ability of a leader to be empathetic and compassionate has the greatest impact on organizational profitability and productivity.” So when asked what makes a good leader, you might think that delegation abilities and hard work are key, but it turns out that being an empathetic person is crucial, especially to employees. 

This may seem like a buzzword in corporate culture, but the reality is that it’s much more than a buzzword. It’s a crucial element of success in the business setting, and without it managers are likely to fail. Feelings and emotions are key to making sure leaders can make strong, good connections with their employees. Without getting emotions involved, leaders aren't able to make their employees feel comfortable and excited about their job.

The meaning of the term empathy.

Empathy is a distinct facet of your emotional intelligence. It is similar to sympathy and compassion, but it is slightly different. The basic definition of empathy is that you have the ability to recognize, understand, and feel the emotions of other people. It also means you can respond appropriately to some other person's thoughts and feelings. 

In a business setting, understanding the emotional needs of other people can look like a manager recognizing that an employee is having a family emergency, and needs some time off. It can also look like a team leader meeting with a team member to discuss some friction with some other person on the team, and how everyone can work better together. It can look like leaders creating a culture of collaboration instead of competition, of sympathy and understanding during emotional times, taking genuine interest in their employees, and leading by example. There are many situations where compassion is not only a nice quality for business leaders to have, but essential to them connecting with their employees and helping them be productive. 

Why is empathy important for leaders?

Managers and executives should strive to empathize with other people in the workplace. It allows them to connect with the people in their organization, improving loyalty and giving employees another reason to love your company. 

When employees feel they have understanding from their leaders, they’re more happy about coming to work and doing their job. This leads to increased productivity and profitability. It can also lead to better interactions with customers, because employees are happy to be at work and want to do a good job. When you have happy customers, you get good reviews. And this can directly impact your success in the marketplace.

Similarly, a lack of sympathy and understanding from leaders can leave employees feeling that they aren’t cared about and don't have anyone to understand them and their perspective. Employees who feel like they’re just cogs in a machine instead of human beings are likely to become dissatisfied with work. They aren’t going to be committed to your organization or to their job performance. This can lead to issues within your organization, and with customers as well. 

Can leaders learn affective empathy skills?

So how do you cultivate the ability to empathize as a leader? Emotional empathy has actually been found to be a genetic trait that’s inherent, more so than taught. Women also tend to be more empathetic than men, but on the whole, every person has their own genetic predisposition for emotional connection and sympathy. This also is indicated by the fact that individuals with autism have the genetic variants also associated with lower feelings of empathy. More research is being done on the genetic connections with emotional intelligence, but it’s important to note that if you don’t that empathizing comes naturally to you, there’s a chance it doesn’t.

While emotional empathy does have a genetic connection, it only accounts for about 10% of the variation in emotional levels. Empathy is usually learned from a young age when it’s modeled by parents and other adults. Leaders who are struggling with emotion can practice in order to develop more sympathy and connection with employees.

Here’s the things you can do to try and cultivate more feelings as a leader.

  • Listening to employees. When you consciously make an effort to employee ideas and suggestions, you'll start understanding the meaning of these buzzwords. Developing the skill of listening to the other person and seeing things from their perspective is crucial for improving your emotional connection.

  • Get to know employees. The more you get to know and understand your employees on a personal level, the more connected feelings you'll have for them. You will know about their families, and they will become real people who have lives outside of the office to you. This will help you care about them on another level.

  • Consider other perspectives. When you’re willing to look at things from multiple angles, you’re practicing healthy emotions. Carefully think about all the sides of an argument before having an opinion. You want to make sure that you're considering the feelings of others before you proceed so you can do what will be the best for the largest number of people.

  • Get education. Consider pursuing advanced education that can help you develop healthy emotions and responses. You’ll have other experiences and connections to help you learn how to understand the other person, and the skills you learn as you earn your degree are focused on being a better leader.

Are there downsides to empathetic leadership?

While it seems pretty straightforward to have more affective empathy as a leader, could there be a downside? Yale’s Paul Bloom says that the answer is YES. He found that empathy does have the power to hurt judgment and lead to poor decision making in business. Business leaders need to be able to balance what is best for the whole organization with being kind and considerate to individual employees. Basically, sometimes empathy can lead us to do what’s wrong. Our feelings and connections can lead us to care more about a single person than the group as a whole.

Similarly, empathy takes energy and time and emotions from us. So too much empathy in the workplace can lead to burnout, especially for leaders who are trying to balance their business decisions with being a great manager. Too much focus on empathy can leave managers feeling emotionally drained and can hurt their ability to lead, and do their jobs well.

Additionally, empathy can lead to bias, because we tend to be more emotionally connected to the people that we have similarities with. This can lead to a bias toward the people that we are like, and can prevent diversity in your organization. It’s important that business leaders consciously avoid narrow focus and bias by finding ways to be caring toward all their employees.

While it's clear that leaders need understanding and care for their employees, they need to learn how to balance these feelings with their abilities to perform their job duties well. They need to be kind to employees, but not at the expense of the group or organization as a whole

Empathy is a crucial trait for successful business leaders. When you combine that with skills you learn from education at a university like WGU, you’ll be on track to be a great business leader and transform your organization in positive ways.

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