Why empathy is crucial to successful leadership and inclusivity

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There’s a lot of talk about the need for greater empathy in our daily lives. But what is it – and why should leaders in particular focus on being empathetic in their actions?

 

To start, its important to define what empathy is, and how it varies from sympathy. Essentially, empathy is “being able to understand the needs of others as individuals.” 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.

 

The importance of empathy to leaders

When it comes to leadership, empathetic leaders are those that have perspective and understand the emotional side of their team members’ lives, both inside and outside the office. Being empathetic drives a culture and working environment of inclusivity and diversity as everyone’s views, experiences, and backgrounds are treated equally, without favouritism. It is crucial to inclusive leadership.

 

Leaders need to practice empathy if they want to get the best from their people. The changing world of work means that we all want to be treated as individuals, and so understanding any problems and issues that might be impacting performance in a supportive, empathetic way is crucial.

 

At the same time employees 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.

 

The benefits of empathy in business

At a concrete level empathetic leadership delivers multiple benefits. It is central to successful transformational leadership and to building trust between managers and their teams.

 

Empathy 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.

 

How do you build empathy in your leaders?

Some people do naturally display higher levels of empathy, in the same way that some show greater emotional intelligence. However, it isn’t solely an innate skill. It can be learnt and coached so that any leader can become more empathetic, although it is vital that it is genuine, rather than leaders just paying lip service to the concept. A failure to be truly empathetic will be soon spotted by employees and will actively lead to them becoming demotivated and disengaged.

 

Developing these five skills will underpin more empathetic 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.

 

  1. 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.

 

  1. 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.

 

  1. 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.

 

  1. Set a strong example

Empathy is a trait that 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 and better performance

Successful businesses understand the importance of empathy in leadership, especially post-pandemic and in today’s disrupted times. For example, Grant Thornton’s 2021 International Business Report (IBR) found that 22% of global mid-market leaders cited empathy as amongst the most important factors for success in 2021 and beyond. 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. Empathy starts with listening, acting on feedback and improving to build trust, support, and performance, benefiting the business, managers, and their wider teams, making it a central part of your leadership development programmes.