Empathy is the most important leadership skill! a Forbes magazine headline claimed. Instantly, I looked up! That sounds interesting, I thought. I have been talking about Empathy – one of our eight Inclusive Behaviours – for a long time. And now there’s research supporting our view of its importance? Oh yes, that is of interest!
And not just to us! To you, I hope, too.
What does the research actually say?
The Forbes article explains that Empathy is an essential skill for leaders that, in addition to being a valuable people-skill, also drives innovation and retention. The reason? Elevated stress levels in recent times have made it difficult for people to find happiness at work. An empathetic leader can be the gateway to reinstating this elusive characteristic and improve performance. Here is how:
- Empathetic leaders can inspire employees to innovate.
- Empathetic leaders can drive engagement.
- When women feel that their life circumstances are respected and valued by their organisations, they are less inclined to leave.
- Those with empathetic leaders feel more included and attribute that inclusion to the organisation.
- Empathy makes it easier for people to juggle conflicting work/life priorities and more successfully navigate demands on time from family and colleagues.
- Empathy begets empathy and increases cooperation when introduced into the decision-making process.
- Empathetic leaders contribute to improved mental health of their employees.
All of this is logical and most of us understand it. But here’s the thing that I found incredible: research suggests that showing empathy is an important part of our human condition. When we empathise with others, our brain is triggered in the same way as when we experience what the person with whom we empathise experiences. It’s emotional telepathy!
Science indicates that we are neurologically-linked to other human’s emotions, so it’s not surprising after all that when we are shown empathy, it improves our wellbeing and our performance. Similarly, when we are deprived of it, our emotional wellbeing and all related physiological and emotional responses suffer as a consequence.
What does this mean for leadership?
Empathy is undoubtedly part of any good leadership development training. It is most certainly part of our Inclusive Leadership programme. So if you’re a leader, or are developing to become one, think of strengthening your empathy muscles.
Here are a few suggested ways to do that:
- Step into the shoes of another. Ask yourself: If the roles were reversed, how would I feel? This is something we can practice not only in the work context but anywhere and anytime. The more we practice this, the better we get at Empathy. And, before we know it, we no longer have to ask ourselves the question, we simply understand what the other person must be going through in order to act ‘that’ way.
- Ask the question. When it is unclear why or what another person is doing – and particularly if that person is a peer or a colleague – allow them the space to explain. A simple question such as What is really bothering you? or What are you trying to achieve? or similar will afford them the opportunity not only to respond but to reflect and understand their own motivation. The ability to provide someone a space to reflect is in itself an act of empathy.
- Showing empathy doesn’t mean agreeing. When we show empathy, we show the other person we understand them. But it doesn’t necessarily follow that we have to agree with them. Constructive feedback is much better received in an environment where perspectives are understood and acknowledged, even if disagreed with.
Empathy is an important part of Inclusion. So when you celebrate International Men’s Day or mark Transgender Day of Remembrance (or the International Day for the Elimination of Violence Against Women) later this month, use your empathy to reach out and try to understand the meaning behind the event and what it could teach you. In the end, the person who is able to empathise benefits just as much as the person on the receiving end of empathy.