- Knowledge Centre

The role of empathy in leadership

You may have heard the adage, "People don't leave jobs; they leave managers." Often, the difference between a manager people want to work for and one they don’t, comes down to one critical skill: emotional intelligence. 

At the heart of emotional intelligence lies the competency of empathy.  Empathy is the ability to step out of our own world as we see and experience it, step in to someone else’s, accurately understand it, and the take appropriate action, make an appropriate communication and/or decision. However, empathy must be balanced to be effective.

Demonstrating too little empathy can easily result in a leader or manager becoming so focused on the task to be completed, the project to be delivered, the looming deadline not to be missed, that the human side of doing business and getting things done are unintentionally overlooked or even intentionally sidelined.

On the flip side, demonstrating excessive empathy can result in a leader automatically accepting missed deadlines, poor quality of work, even conduct which is outside the organisation’s boundaries. 

Keeping the peace, maintaining harmony and ‘avoiding conflict’ are important priorities for a leader who demonstrates excessive empathy. 

With even the slightest disagreement risking feeling like conflict, a crucial conversation which deserves to happen often doesn’t.  A well-deserved reprimand can be received as ‘a little chat’ rather than an important communication.

Here are six reasons why demonstrating balanced empathy is vital for a leader and their team.

Empathy Builds Trust

Key Benefit: A foundation of trust encourages loyalty and open communication. 

This isn’t trust purely relating to technical competence or brilliance.  It is trust for the human being who happens to hold a leadership position.  Encouraging and endorsing open, honest communication within and across teams is a highly effective mechanism for promoting collaborative, healthy dialogue at all levels. 

The empathic leader replaces an employee’s focus on their official position of authority to one of peer.  

When you empathise with team members, it helps them to feel seen, heard, and understood. This fosters trust, making it easier for employees to approach the leader with problems, both existing and anticipated, ideas on how to remove or mitigate risks and obstacles, or provide meaningful feedback, thus enhancing team dynamics. 

The person who deserves to hear feedback the most can often be the person who receives it the least.  The leader. 

Inviting specific feedback from individuals within your team rather than as a group removes the risk of groupthink and reduces the risk of compliance with authority.

Empathy Enhances Communication

Key Benefit: Open channels of communication lead to better decision-making and achieving more in less time.

Balanced empathy enables the leader to better understand the needs, priorities, concerns, and perspectives of team members. This makes communication more effective, timely, transparent and enables leaders to make informed decisions that consider the collective team's viewpoint.

A leader may unintentionally impose a deadline on a team member for a project or task to be completed, without fully understanding the team members other existing priorities and responsibilities.  It is easy for a subordinate to say a well meaning ‘Yes’ to a leaders request to take on a new task or project, and to achieve a deadline, however unachievable the deadline may be.

The empathic leader takes the opportunity to balance getting the job done with ensuring the journey for the team member or group is as smooth as possible. 

This does not mean that challenging deadlines should not be agreed by the parties concerned.  It does mean that the team member can confidently communicate ‘Let’s take a look at other projects that need to be completed before I commit to that task’ or ‘I don’t want to say yes I can achieve the deadline you mentioned without first checking other projects and tasks that also deserve my attention.’ 

The empathic leader does not impose a deadline, s/he agrees it.

Speaking truth to power such as honestly communicating that a deadline is unrealistic and deserves further discussion, can come with a consequence.  Disapproval. 

An easy way for a leader, and an under pressure leader to get the job done while maintaining a balanced level of empathy is to ask the team member what timescale is realistically achievable, what support and input would s/he require from you if any, what other priorities can be either rescheduled or delegated to a third party.

Empathy Boosts Employee Engagement

Key Benefit: Emotionally engaged employees are more productive and committed.

An empathetic leader who appreciates their team's efforts, understands their struggles and balances getting the job done with supporting colleagues through their journey, will naturally boost employee engagement. This often translates into higher productivity levels and fewer deadlines being missed, as an emotionally engaged employee is a committed one. 

Research undertaken by Harvard established that an emotionally engaged employee delivers on average 40% more value for their organisation over a fellow employee who is neither emotionally engaged nor disengaged.

The research identified the key drivers of emotional engagement as

1) the meaning the employee associates to the work s/he undertakes and is actively involved in. 

2) the quality of relationship the employee has with their direct line manager. 

It is important to note also that if an employee does not find meaning and/or fulfilment in their role, and does not enjoy a mutually satisfying, high trust relationship with their line manager, you as leader may be less empathic towards said employee.  Unless that is you lead by example and begin to develop the relationship and focus on helping your colleague to enjoy their role more.

Empathy Reduces Workplace Stress

Key Benefit: A less stressful environment enhances wellbeing.

A leader with balanced empathy can detect when team members are moving from feeling pressured, to feeling stressed or burned out.

By noticing and then addressing these issues early, the leader can preempt more significant problems, put a practical plan in place to avoid or manage these situations, and create a healthier work environment. 

Neuroscience has established that the human brain may deem occasional bouts of stress as ‘positively challenging’ and even ‘exciting’. 

Picture for a moment riding on a speeding rollercoaster. The ride with its speed, twists, tuns and loops can be exhilarating for some.  For others, a terrifying experience that they’re glad when the ride is over. 

In the workplace though, the human brain cannot operate effectively over a period of time during which stress is prominent.  The brain focuses on surviving rather than thriving, and this significantly impacts a person’s ability and willingness to engage and perform. 

A really easy way to demonstrate empathy in the workplace is to work with colleagues to proactively plan key priorities, explore and agree achievable deadlines underpinned with objective analysis of resources, projects and stakeholder requirements. 

The time you invest in planning will reap dividends quickly, and consistently if you stick with it as a standard.  If you believe you don’t have time to plan because you have so many ‘plates spinning’, a contributing factor may be the absence of proactive planning and collaborative, candid communication.

Empathy Improves Conflict Resolution

Key Benefit: Effective conflict resolution maintains a harmonious team environment.

Leaders with balanced empathy are open to seeing all sides of an issue and appreciating different perspectives.  Even if there is a perspective or position being presented that is at odds with their own, s/he will still recognise it.

This willingness to explore different viewpoints, beliefs and rules, helps the leader to become more effective at not just resolving conflict, but anticipating conflict and avoiding it in the first place. Disagreement is not always conflict. 

Disagreement can be healthy.  Healthy debate, disagreement can help a group reach higher quality decisions which enable the team to deliver more value, more quickly. 

An absence of empathy delivers the opposite outcome.  Team members either remain silent and wait to be instructed on what to do (and avoid taking personal ownership of the decision or consequences), or risk arguing a point to the extent that agreeing with their counterpart/s feels like ‘giving in’, and so they continue arguing.

It is important to remember that you can argue a point without arguing with your counterpart/s.  You can disagree agreeably and doing so helps to reinforce and develop a strong working relationship.

Empathy Adds A Human Element To Leadership

Key Benefit: Human leadership is sustainable leadership.

Employees don't want to work for robots; they want leaders who understand that life happens.

Balanced empathy ensures that you can maintain high standards while recognising the human elements that naturally come into play in any workplace environment.  Excessive focus on task completion while sidelining the people who are actually completing the tasks under your leadership is dangerous. 

Balancing getting the job done alongside ensuring that your team members, peers and stakeholders are all able to deliver what outcome is required, and enjoy as smooth a journey as possible, is a clear demonstration of balanced empathy.

If you are a leader who, with good intentions, makes commitments to colleagues, customers or stakeholders, but then finds it challenging to keep your commitments, it can reflect the value you place on relationships, serving others and that your work is meaningful for you. 

The downside there is that with multiple projects, conflicting deadlines and growing pressure to deliver more, it can result in a ‘Who can I let down first who will forgive me the quickest?’ mentality.  Don’t do it!  First reach agreements, that can then lead to commitments.

Conclusion

So there you have it! Six compelling reasons why every leader, including you, should strive to demonstrate balanced empathy. Not only does it make you more approachable and effective in your role, but it also fosters a work environment that people are proud to be a part of.

Be the kind of leader that your team members follow by choice rather than out of a sense of duty.

To find out more about Summit Emotional Intelligence training courses for leaders, managers and teams, get in touch.

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