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:
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:
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:
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.