Empathy is a key skill for everyone and is crucial to building trusted relationships in work, family, and social settings. But what actually is empathy and why is having empathy as a leader particularly vital for business success?
What does empathy mean?
Let’s start by understanding what empathy is, and how it differs from sympathy. Empathy is being able to understand the needs of others as individuals, even if you don’t necessarily agree with or share their feelings or needs.
The main difference with sympathy is that being sympathetic involves you sharing the same feelings as someone. By contrast, empathy is when you understand but potentially don’t agree with or share the other person’s feelings or needs. You put yourself in their position and communicate to them that you understand their point of view, and that it is valid, whatever your own feelings. This is clearly much more difficult to achieve.
The different forms of empathy
Breaking it down further, there are three specific types of empathy as identified by psychologists Daniel Goleman and Paul Ekman:
1. Cognitive empathy
This is understanding how another person feels and why they feel that way. Sometimes called perspective-taking, cognitive empathy connects you at a thinking level with the person you are talking to. However, it doesn’t go further or connect with them by sharing their feelings. So cognitive empathy can be seen as cold or detached from the situation.
2. Emotional empathy
This goes beyond cognitive empathy to share the same emotions and feelings as the person you are speaking to. You may achieve this by comparing their situation to similar ones you’ve been through and tapping into the emotions you felt then to connect more deeply on an emotional level. It is important to combine this with cognitive empathy – if you solely focus on the emotional side, you may not be able to manage your own emotions successfully and could lose control.
This is the third type of empathy and builds on the first two. Not only do you understand how the other person feels and share the same emotions, but you then offer support, help and compassion. Importantly, you need to have experienced the first two types of empathy before taking action. That means you balance analysis (cognitive) and feeling (emotional) to then come up with practical solutions.
The 5 elements of empathy
To demonstrate empathy, people have to master five key elements, which have again been defined by Daniel Goleman.
1. Understanding others
This is the basic start point for empathy and involves the ability to sense others’ feelings and perspectives, and then act on this knowledge. This could be gained by listening to what someone is saying and combining this with emotional and visual cues to build understanding.
2. Developing others
Based on understanding, this element involves developing others by acting on their needs and concerns. It helps them build their skills and develop to their full potential.
3. Having a service orientation
This is particularly vital in customer facing situations and involves putting the needs of the customer first. Essentially people put themselves in the customer’s shoes, understand their issues, empathise, and go the extra mile to solve them. Equally the same skills could be used in a personal or family environment.
4. Leveraging diversity
Everyone is different, so successful empathy requires people to be treated as individuals, whatever their background. This element involves tailoring the way you interact with others to fit with their needs and feelings, based on the empathy and understanding you have built up.
5. Political awareness
This element of empathy means having an awareness of the politics of the group, team, or situation, and using this to respond accordingly. It requires an understanding of power relationships and using this to get the best possible outcome without causing upset.
Why is empathy so important to leaders?
In the past empathy has been seen as a “soft” skill, meaning that many leaders have not understood its importance. However, having empathy as a leader is at the heart of creating a supportive, no blame, and open culture that enables innovation and teamwork. Everyone performs better as they feel comfortable in asking for – and receiving – the training and support they need to continually improve. These stronger relationships lead to greater engagement, loyalty, and improve employee retention.
In addition: The world of work has changed dramatically. Leaders therefore need to practice empathy if they want to get the best from their people. Everyone wants to be treated as an individual, and so understanding any problems and issues that might be impacting their performance in a supportive, empathic way is crucial.
Employees, particularly those from younger generations, are looking for more from their jobs – they want recognition, to work for companies that have a purpose that aligns with their own interests, and employers that understand their personal pressures, commitments, and concerns. This is especially true in current challenging economic conditions. All of this requires leaders with empathy that understand and connect with their people. Empathy and leadership now go hand in hand – our Future of Work Report has also shown that.
What is empathic leadership?
Empathic leadership (or professional empathy) applies the concepts of empathy to working relationships.
Empathic (or empathetic) leaders are those that have perspective and understand the emotional side of their team members’ lives, both inside and outside the office. Having an empathic leadership style drives a culture and working environment of inclusivity and diversity as everyone’s views, experiences, and backgrounds are treated equally, without favouritism. Concern for customers is paramount and it is crucial to inclusive leadership.
Empathic leaders behave in specific ways:
- They take the time to genuinely understand and build relationships with all of their people, whatever their background or place in the team
- They are open and available to discuss issues and problems, without any negativity
- They are excellent active listeners, understanding visual, spoken, and emotional cues
- They promote unity and champion diversity and respect for all
- They treat everyone as an individual, personalising how they respond and act
Empathic leadership is relevant in both everyday and non-everyday situations:
During times of change
When an organisation is going through a significant change, such as a merger or acquisition, empathic leaders can help their team members navigate the transition. They can offer emotional support, acknowledge the difficulties and uncertainties of the situation, and provide a clear and compassionate vision for the future.
Helping employees with personal challenges
Empathic leaders recognise that team members are whole people with lives outside of work. When a team member is experiencing personal challenges, such as family issues, empathic leaders can offer support and flexibility to help them manage their workload while also dealing with their personal situation.
Helping an employee struggling with work
Empathic leaders can help team members who are struggling with their workload or responsibilities. They can offer support, provide additional resources or training, and work with the team member to find a solution that works for them.
During times of crisis
When an organisation is facing a crisis, such as during the COVID-19 pandemic, empathic leaders can help their team members feel safe and supported. They can communicate regularly and transparently, offer emotional support and resources, and work with their team to find creative solutions to the challenges they face.
Dealing with workplace conflict
Empathic leaders can help team members who are dealing with workplace conflict. They can listen to both sides of the situation, validate each person’s perspective, and work with the team members to find a resolution that meets everyone’s needs.
Can empathy be learned?
Some people do naturally display higher levels of empathy, in the same way that some show greater emotional intelligence. However, empathy for leaders isn’t solely an innate skill. The positive news is that it can be learnt and coached so that any leader can become more empathic, although it is vital that it is genuine, rather than leaders just paying lip service to the concept. A failure to be truly empathic will be soon spotted by employees and will actively lead to them becoming demotivated and disengaged. Equally the more you practice empathy, the better you will become at it.
Developing these five skills will underpin more empathic leadership:
1. Spend time getting to know your people
Take time to become more familiar with the day-to-day issues that impact individual employees internally and externally. This will help you understand what motivates them as a person and give perspective into any issues that potentially impact their happiness at work. It’s important to build a holistic understanding that covers their home life too – particularly in today’s hybrid working world.
2. Be a good listener
Listen with intent to your team members. That means focusing on what they are saying (and not saying) by looking at verbal and non-verbal clues. Show you are actively involved by asking questions to build a deeper understanding and make sure you let them take the lead. If necessary, reassure them that you are aiming to help, rather than judging what they say. Make sure you are totally focused on the conversation and don’t interrupt.
3. Be inclusive
Inclusive leaders listen and support everyone in their team, whatever their background or experience levels. Be clear that you value everybody’s views and perspective and in team meetings give all employees the chance to speak. Create an environment where all employees feel safe and empowered to share. Use inclusive phrases such as “let’s hear X’s thoughts on this” to ensure that everyone feels equally valued and included.
4. Be non-judgemental
Show understanding when looking at how people work and perform tasks. That means seeing beyond the actual results they deliver to understanding the underlying reasons that may be affecting their work. Look at the bigger picture and take time to support people to grow, rather than being upset or angry if their work is initially not up to scratch.
5. Set a strong example
Levels of empathy as a leadership trait can be continually improved. Seek out and act on 360 degree feedback from all of those you work with. This will give new perspectives on the skills you need to develop as well as demonstrating that you are open to the feedback and perspectives of others. This self-awareness in leadership is critical to improving and deepening your skills.
The link between empathy in a leader and better performance
Successful businesses understand the importance of empathy in leadership, especially post-pandemic and in today’s disrupted times.
Empathy creates productive, inclusive, innovative workplaces and teams that outperform the competition and helps retain people for longer. It is therefore vital to ensure that all your leaders, from the top down, recognise its importance and it is a central part of your leadership development programs moving forward.
How Tivian’s Leadership 360 helps with empathic leadership
Empathic leadership is a vital part of every leader’s skillset. Like other leadership traits it can be learnt, improved, and developed to deliver optimal results for you, your team, and the wider business.
Improving empathic leadership starts with feedback and Tivian’s Leadership 360 brings the power of feedback to leaders at all levels. It enables leaders to collect on-demand feedback from their managers, peers, subordinates, and colleagues. These insights show areas of strength and where you can improve. Tivian’s AI engine then helps you personalise your own action plan for development, boosting your skills and making you a more empathic leader.