Empathy in Leadership

  • 3 min read

Empathy has always been considered as a critical skill of a good leader, but with the pandemic and constant change in work environment which has been witnessed in the last few years, this trait has been brought to the forefront more than ever before. Never have we experienced such rising incidents of employees having mental health challenges at workplace, coping with grief of losing a loved one or simply craving for digital detox contributed by the fatigue caused by incessant conference calls. Research reveals that empathy is an important business consideration as it drives productivity and thereby effective results and hence is an imperative now rather than a choice.

Empathy has been interpreted differently in varied situations – we often use empathy in the same parlance as sympathy! Sympathy is an emotion which the receiver in most situations would not like to receive. Empathy can be viewed as a compassionate reaction combined with a positive response. It is a more positive emotion than sympathy.

“Leadership is about empathy. It is about having the ability to relate to and connect with people for the purpose of inspiring and empowering their lives - Oprah Winfrey

Including Empathy in your everyday life

Emotions and good behaviour do not have scheduled dates. It needs to be tuned into our everyday life.  Leaders don’t have to be experts in mental health in order to demonstrate that they care. It’s enough to check in periodically to assess if things are going on well with your team members. Leaders need to be educated about the company’s resources for mental health so they can disseminate such information to their teams as required.

Walk the talk

Being empathetic enables you as a person to manage your anxiety and balance your emotions.  Gone are the days when leaders were expected to be made of steel and devoid of any emotions at workplace. The current workforce wishes to emulate a more humane leader, someone who can deliver efficient and effective results with greater team engagement and empathy. Also being an emotionally balanced leader who is not afraid to talk about the fact that you are having a bad day would encourage your team members to share their emotions. Hence, let us start by walking the talk and lead the way towards empathetic leadership.

Be aware and connected

Be aware of your team members lives at least to some extent. Without crossing the line and encroaching into their personal space, it is very important to support your team members when they are going through a bad patch in life. Check on your team members at regular intervals to make sure they are doing okay and take constructive action to support them or take corrective action wherever things are not going okay. Mere listening without necessary action is likely to have counter productive results.

Listen, Listen , Listen

Ask the team members at periodic intervals if they are doing okay and wait for the answer before you proceed with your conversation. Sometimes we may be quick to criticize others without making the effort to understand how their situation and experiences are impacting their choices.  Also, it is important to remember that you need not know their exact issue especially if it is personal and hence, do not insist if the other person is not comfortable sharing. Take cues from employee behaviour such as an employee who seems to withdrawing from social life when they are normally social or some team member being unusually quiet or always being short tempered which is not their usual behaviour. It is very important to note that each individual shares differently – some may be vocal about their needs and situation, some may want to draw clear boundaries and while some you may need to build the trust in you for them to share. Also, most importantly, do not reveal personal details of your teams to other members however unintentional it may be.

In summary, leadership is always a tight rope to walk. Compassionate leaders are more often than not perceived as weak and their ability to deliver high profile projects with stringent deadlines is doubted. Leaders also need to balance their demands from their work and personal life. However, research does reveal that Empathetic leaders are highly successful because they have a great and trustworthy team to support them. Especially, in today's world where robots have replaced several activities which were being performed by human beings, the key differentiator is the inherent ability of human beings to have emotions and be humane. Empathy may not be a new skill, but it has a new level of importance backed by scientific research which makes it clear that Empathy needs to be demonstrated now and in the future of work to be a successful leader.

Ask yourself - Am I being an empathetic leader?

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