We have all heard of the soft skill “works well with others.” But what does that mean? And what role does empathy play in it? In today’s world, being a successful leader is more than simply focusing on the big picture and ROI. It often means managing diverse teams across a spectrum of circumstances. Empathy has evolved from being nice to have to an imperative for effective leadership. Empathetic leadership allows your teams to thrive during times of disruption and fosters a sense of belonging with employees.
The importance of empathy
From the mirror neurons to the supramarginal gyrus, brains are built for empathy. Plus, when we give in to that natural impulse, everyone wins. Here are a few reasons why:
- Loyalty: Retaining talent is one of the main issues organizations face today, with many employees citing a lack of caring and support from leadership. Thankfully, empathy is here to help. When leaders empathize with their teams, they build trust. Trust helps employees feel valued, and as that sense of appreciation grows, company loyalty does too.
- Engagement: When you genuinely care about others, they’re more likely to care about you. The same goes for the workplace. Employees will work harder for a company that engages with them.
- Cooperation: When leaders value empathy, their employees are far more likely to follow their example. This modeled behavior leads to better team cooperation and fewer interpersonal issues.
- Happiness: It’s a simple fact that when a person is appreciated, they feel happier. And happier employees are more productive and less likely to show signs of quiet quitting. Leading with empathy is a direct path to a more satisfied workforce.
- Creativity: When you blend all the previous benefits, you create a work environment in which employees are eager to challenge themselves and feel safe enough to take the risks that lead to true innovation. When people bring their best selves to work, they do their best work.
Analyzing data from 6,731 managers across thirty-eight countries, the Center for Creative Leadership found that empathy worked both up and down the ladder: Empathetic managers were viewed more positively by their subordinates and superiors. Make sure to keep in mind the difference between empathy and sympathy. Where sympathy means feeling sorry for someone else’s struggles, empathy involves being able to feel someone else’s feelings or to “walk a mile in their shoes.”
How can leaders grow their empathy capacity?
Empathy is an active trait. Though almost everyone can empathize with others, putting it into practice takes intention and work. Thankfully, empathy is like a muscle. The more you exercise it, the stronger it’ll get. To be a more empathetic leader, try incorporating these methods:
- Practice active listening. Active listening doesn’t mean simply hearing someone. It means paying close attention to your tone and body language, asking good questions, not interrupting, and carefully considering what the other person is saying before you speak.
- Be present. You can’t be empathetic if you aren’t paying attention. Avoid distractions and concentrate on fully interacting with someone. Take a break from checking your watch or phone and remain in the moment.
- Mind your judgment of others. Open-mindedness is critical for empathy, which means leaving judgments about the rightness or wrongness of someone else’s feelings at the door. Instead, view others with compassion while seeking understanding.
- Encourage everyone to speak up. Once you’re paying attention, you might notice a few team members who struggle to share as much as others. Try to ask those people for their ideas and opinions. Be curious! Just because they’re quiet doesn’t mean they don’t have great things to contribute. Making space for your team to share their ideas and concerns without fear of retaliation helps foster team psychological safety and a sense of belonging.
- Take a genuine interest in your team. Being truly empathetic means genuinely caring about others, their circumstances, hobbies, struggles, and feelings. Be curious, ask polite questions, and find common ground with your team to help your empathy grow.
Too often, vulnerability and emotional openness—aspects of empathy—are viewed as weaknesses. But the opposite is true. Though it’s a soft skill, being empathetic is an impressive strength for any team member or leader. Genuinely caring about others takes effort. How strong is your empathy muscle? The truth is that most of us are a little bit weak. We spend our days focused on ourselves since we can only actively experience our perceptions. But that doesn’t mean we can’t try to understand what others are going through. Through practice, we can put our new-found muscles to good use.
Empathy breeds innovation
The computer, the smartphone, medical advancements, and the moon landing—none of humanity’s greatest inventions or feats happened alone. When it comes to bringing big ideas to life, we need each other. We need cooperation. And most of all, we need empathy. When we think about the purpose of innovation, we can shrink it down to a single concept: meeting needs. We’ve all heard the saying “necessity breeds invention,” but as organizations look towards the future in our complex and interconnected world, we must determine which necessities are the focus.
Empathy—for ourselves, loved ones, colleagues, and strangers—is how we get there. Empathy is not only about trying to understand how others are feeling. It’s also an essential component in the fabric of society. Becoming more empathetic is one of the best things you can do for your organization and your people. Just think how the world has changed over the last few years. From navigating both a global pandemic and social injustice movements, empathy is arguably more important than ever. Through empathetic leaders, your organization conveys that your culture does not revolve around revenue. It’s about your people.