The Rise of the Empathetic Leader

Empathy is about our shared humanness. It’s touching base at the ground level of our being. Empathetic leaders are on the rise. They are able to widen their awareness to understand what people are experiencing, thinking and feeling so they can take that as part of their own perceptual lens to run an organization or a team.

“Employee” is a role many of us play for an organization, but nobody is ever just an employee. These past two years have put many “employees”, as human beings, through an emotional wringer. 

People have increasingly asked what matters to them. Many are re-evaluating meaning in their lives and have less tolerance for feeling like another cog in the wheel, let alone another rat in the race. 

“See me” - people are asking, and empathetic leaders understand that.

Empathy Matters Now More Than Ever

The pandemic and post-pandemic periods have accelerated the demand for empathetic leaders. Research indicates that 67% of people have increased stress and 57% have increased anxiety. Many have felt less focused, less clear when completing tasks, more overloaded and under-slept. Burnout rates have reached all-time highs - reflecting energy depletion, a sense of mental distance from or negativity towards work, and reduced professional efficacy, a contributing catalyst to the ongoing Great Resignation. The once nice-to-have “soft skills” are now considered must-haves.

Entrepreneur indicates “creating a culture of well-being” as one of the top five leadership trends to embrace for 2022: “Every person on a company’s executive team must be committed to workplace well-being, modeling a holistic lifestyle where top priorities are physical, emotional, mental and spiritual health.” And a recent study revealed that “the ability of a leader to be empathetic and compassionate has the greatest impact on organizational profitability and productivity.”

What is An Empathetic Leader? 

We are wired for empathy. Catalyst defines empathy as 1) connecting with others to identify and understand their thoughts, perspectives and emotion and 2) demonstrating that we understand with intention, care and concern. Therefore, “an empathetic leader is a leader who demonstrates care, concern and understanding for an employee's life circumstances.”

Empathy is a distinct component of emotional intelligence, which is increasingly important as leaders become more senior. At the executive level, emotional intelligence accounts for 80% to 90% of the abilities that distinguish high performers.

In her new book Atlas of The Heart, Brené Brown discerns between: cognitive empathy or perspective taking (the ability to recognize and understand another person’s emotions) as opposed to affective empathy (one’s own emotional attunement with another person’s experience). Brown asserts that meaningful connection is built upon cognitive empathy, combined with compassion. To underline that, she emphasizes “empathy is not relating to an experience, it’s connecting to what someone is feeling about an experience.”

Empathetic leaders widen their awareness to understand what people are experiencing, thinking and feeling so they can take that as part of their own perceptual lens in how to run an organization or a team.

Being an empathetic leader might look like understanding the struggles and concerns of those working for you, checking in on the work/life balancing and navigating friction within teams.

But empathetic leadership is not only responsive. It’s as simple as remembering this - human, first, before employee, manager or leader. Being an empathetic leader can be about the tone you set for interaction with yourself and between others in your organization. It can mean embodying the presence that allows for raw humanness more than role playing, encourages curious participation over ego posturing, and prizes a learning atmosphere more than preserving a facade of certainty.

The Impact Of Empathetic Leadership

Empathy is about our shared humanness. It’s touching base at the ground level of our being - and it matters.

Research from the Center for Creative Leadership found that being an empathetic leader is positively related to job performance: managers who are rated as empathetic by their reports are also rated as high performing by their bosses.

Leaders who encourage employees to learn on the job and listen to their ideas for change foster more team resilience and effectiveness. When empathy is part of decision making, it contagiously increases cooperation and empathy.

Catalyst found that empathetic leadership boosts employee experience and performance: 

  • Innovation: 61% of people with highly empathetic senior leaders report being regularly innovative at work (compared to 13% with less empathetic leaders).
  • Engagement: 76% of people with highly empathetic senior leaders report being regularly engaged at work (compared to 32%).
  • Inclusion: 50% of people with highly empathetic senior leaders report regularly feeling inclusion at work (compared to only 17%).
  • Balance: 86% of people with highly empathetic senior leaders feel able to navigate their work/life demands (compared to 60%).
  • Retention: 57% of white women and 62% of women of color who felt their life circumstances were respected and valued never or rarely think about leaving (compared to 14% and 30%, respectively, who did not feel respected and valued). Women of color are nearly twice as likely to be considering leaving when empathy is seen as lacking.

How To Improve Your Empathetic Leadership Skills

As the first gateway to empathy, make self-awareness your greatest practice. Former Navy Seal and author Brent Gleeson indicates self-reflection as one of five key attributes of values-led leadership competency. Daniel Goleman defines self-awareness as the first area of emotional intelligence. Your ability to authentically listen into thoughts and feelings and show compassion for others is as strong as your ability to listen into your own thoughts and feelings and show compassion for yourself. You can only be as present for other’s vulnerability as you are capable of being for your own.

According to Brené Brown, the three ways leaders practice vulnerability everyday in order to become more empathetic are:

  1. Be radically honest with yourself and others, even when it’s difficult.
  2. Take risks and be creative rather than hiding in the comfort zone.
  3. Embrace imperfection as a basis to learn from and build upon. 

So to build empathy as a leader, dare to lean into your own vulnerability. 

Here are more ways to practice elevating your empathetic leadership skills:

  • Meet people, not employees - Show a genuine interest in people as individuals and their rounded lives as human beings. Look for what you appreciate in people more often than what you judge or dislike, and seek commonalities where you first perceive mostly differences. 

  • Turn towards discomfort - Not everyone will put their hand up over burnout, so be sensitive to noticing when people are stressed or acting differently. Rather than turn a blind-eye, choose the discomfort of simply checking in. Don’t start with assumptions, but be curious about how others are doing and what it is they might need. 

  • Care about others' visions - Be aware of the values, needs and dreams of the people around you, and attuned to what matters and makes the difference in the small ways you can show recognition.

  • Be open - Being approachable and encouraging communication helps to let people know they can approach you and feel comfortable sharing, including when it’s a personal matter.

  • Upskill on listening - We can all become better listeners - learning the empathetic listening skills, being fully present with our heads, hearts and eyes, and taking in both spoken and unspoken messaging. Creating safety, clearing distractions, understanding and verifying, listening to non-verbal cues and language, grasping the emotional experience from their perspective, and clarifying assumptions are all part of great listening

  • Practice perspective-taking - Practice putting yourself in another’s place or consider how a situation might feel. When you have two perspectives on any situation, look for a third angle to see from. Observe your own ability for “othering” - who are you more likely to empathize with due to perceived similarities? Who are you more likely to distance, and therefore dehumanize or “other”? 

  • Be authentic - In order to be receptive to another’s authentic experience, you must also be non-judging of your own, meaning you allow your authenticity and trust in the belonging and connection that comes from that place. When you can be in your truth, you can receive the truth of others, even when it’s in discord with your truth.

  • Create a Growth Environment - Foster the psychological safety that allows for curiosity, learning, imperfection, and risk-taking as part of the growth journey. Go for the win-win team dynamics and solutions: not only are there more empathy muscles involved when you come from a win-win paradigm but it’s also more effective business practice.

To test where you’re at, Catalyst offers an online quiz to assess your empathy skills as a leader. Begin by seeing yourself as human first and remember to meet everyone else at the center of humanness, too. 

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