Does empathy make you a better leader?

Studies on organizational change show that leaders across the board agree: if you want to lead a successful transformation, communicating empathetically is critical. But the truth is that most leaders don’t actually know how to do it. Any organizational change requires inclusive leadership — leadership that assures that all team members feel they are treated respectfully and fairly, are valued and sense that they belong, and are confident and inspired. This is at the heart of empathetic leadership.

What leaders say and do has an outsized impact on others, but research indicates that this effect is even more pronounced when they are leading diverse teams. Words and acts of exclusion by leaders, or overlooking the exclusive behaviors of others, only reinforces the status quo. It takes energy and deliberate effort to create an inclusive culture, and that starts with leaders paying much more attention to what they say and do on a daily basis and adjusting their management styles as necessary.

Three different types of empathy

Michael Ventura, CEO and founder of Sub Rosa and author of Applied Empathy: The New Language of Leadership focuses on design thinking to adopt an applied empathy mindset. When people think about empathy, they think it just means “be nice.”

On a recent Workology Podcast episode, Ventura describes three different types of empathy:


Affective empathy:

“Golden rule empathy,” or treat others as you wish to be treated. Simply saying “be nice to people” shouldn’t be a shock to anyone, but many organizations don’t operate this way.



Somatic empathy:

Genuinely embodying what someone else is going through.



Cognitive empathy:

This is about perspective, self-awareness to gain richer and deeper empathy. We can be somewhat self-aware, know our biases, and use that to know where we’re at and consciously step into someone else’s shoes and understand them. We encourage people to do this through discourse, to ask questions, to hear the answers, and understand how others really feel. Cognitive empathy is what most organizations are talking about when they develop an applied empathy mindset in leadership.


Related content: Leading through Crisis – 8 Tips for Navigating Turbulent Times

Design thinking is driven by empathy

We’ve talked in the past about how design thinking can be used in HR and at work to help drive creativity, engagement, excitement and new ways of thinking and doing. Design thinking can take your HR, workplace, and leadership team(s) to the next level of innovation and strategy - giving your company an edge in a tight talent marketplace.

At the heart of design thinking is a framework that focuses on taking an empathic point of view walking in the shoes of your end user—which for corporate leaders is the employee and/or job candidate. There are many behaviors and tendencies people can adopt that fit with design thinking. It does take emotional intelligence to be present, to be an attentive listener, and sometimes this means training people how to think, react and how to evaluate performance.

Related Content: Emotional Intelligence: A Top Ranked Skill for Employees

Design thinking is solution-focused thinking, or looking at where the solution intersects our understanding of the problem and our needs as an organization. Empathetic leaders look at the root causes and find a solution to problems, rather than simply identifying that challenges exist. This is how design thinking supports empathy in leadership.>

At a large-scale organizational level, the silos and divisions that have been put up to allow for efficient management have also led to difficulty in communication and division between substrata of the workforce culture. If we’re not working together, collaborating, asking questions, we don’t have a living, breathing organism. This has to be more than an HR or marketing initiative, it has to be an organizational initiative.

If we’re not working together, collaborating, asking questions, we don’t have a living, breathing organism. @jmillermerrell #SmartTalkHR @RiseSmart

Having empathy is not the same thing as demonstrating empathy. Conveying empathy is defined as the ability to understand what others are feeling, the ability to actively share emotions with others, and passively experiencing the feelings of others in order to be an effective leader or manager.

Some people possess a higher emotional IQ and these things come naturally. Those people make great mentors for modeling training programs for leaders who don’t have an innate capacity for empathy. In order to “sell” programs like these, however, HR leaders must be able to demonstrate how leading with empathy impacts your workforce and your company’s bottom line.

Why does leading with empathy matter?

Research from Deloitte on diversity and inclusion shows that empathy directly enhances performance. Teams with inclusive leaders are 17 percent more likely to report that they are high performing, 20 percent more likely to say they make high-quality decisions, and 29 percent more likely to report behaving collaboratively. What’s more, the report shows that a 10 percent  improvement in perceptions of inclusion increases work attendance by almost one full day a year per employee, reducing the cost of absenteeism.

The importance of empathy in leadership can be summed up in one word: Trust. If your team doesn’t trust you, you are not a leader; you are just a boss. @jmillermerrell #SmartTalkHR @RiseSmart

The importance of empathy in leadership can be summed up in one word: Trust. If your team doesn’t trust you, you are not a leader; you are just a boss. Empathy is one of the most important components for building trust. When you show that you are aware of your employees’ feelings and appreciate those feelings, even when you don’t agree with them, it builds trust. When your team has faith that you will (at the least) consider their viewpoints and feelings, you can use this insight to give them what they need to succeed, which leads to increased engagement, collaboration and productivity. And a nice side effect: A more pleasant work environment.

Related content: A Happier Workplace: Tips for HR Leaders Looking for More Employee Engagement

Performance measurement and empathy

Do we need to re-evaluate the way performance is measured in order for empathy to thrive? Sitting down for one-on-one reviews or performance audits is important, but applying the same standard to every employee (OKRs, KPIs, metrics) can lead to decreased engagement and morale. If you’re setting goals to high, your team will be less motivated to achieve the impossible. Too low and they won’t feel challenged. Understand what your individual team members see as success factors for your team, specifically in how they feel about their current goals, and you can adapt your performance scale to what motivates them the most.

For example, when you understand what motivates an employee, you can focus on setting goals and responsibilities that directly correlate to what the specific employee defines as success, or what you’ve both agreed defines their success. If you expect employees to only think as you do, you’re handicapping yourself before you’re even out of the gate when it comes to leadership. Company leadership must be able to recognize that managers are not the experts in all things.

Executives and team leaders be willing to learn, adapt, change their course, change their minds, and connect on an intellectual and emotional level with the goals of their team members. This means everyone from the CEO to your HR team will need to develop a strong understanding and regular practice of empathy in leadership. To achieve this, each individual leader must be self-aware enough to discover gaps in their own perception, and be able to communicate across silos within the organization when another area of leadership is failing.

Related content: Developing the Next Generation of Leaders Through Executive Coaching

When leaders take responsibility for employee success and failure, it creates a new perspective for both manager and employee. A manager who can apologize for an error in judgment will be seen as a leader far more than a manager who cannot admit his or her mistakes.  Without empathy, our workplace leaders cannot build productive teams, inspire loyalty, improve employee morale and engagement, or be effective as leaders.

16 May 2019

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