As the person responsible for L&D in your organisation, you’ll already know that empathy – the ability to step into someone else’s shoes and understand their situation – has long been recognised as a critical leadership skill.
Research shows that empathy drives business results across many areas, from retaining talent to increasing innovation. And the sheer pace of change and the unpredictability of our (now often remote) work environments have made empathy even more necessary.
This article makes the case for empathic leadership and outlines ways in which those leaders in your organisation who might be naturally lower in empathy, can begin to demonstrate more of it.
The case for empathic leadership
The opposite of empathy, ignoring a team member’s perspective and hoping they’ll “stop complaining” is not only bad for business, it also contributes to the ongoing rise in workplace stress, anxiety and depression.
The Health and Safety Executive’s (HSE’s) most up to date report (2020/21) on work-related stress, anxiety and depression, shows that of the 822k cases reported, the main causes cited were workload pressures, including tight deadlines, too much responsibility and a lack of managerial support.
These, and other issues which cause stress, can be alleviated by empathic leaders who not only listen to and appreciate their team members’ points of view, but who then have good conversations with them to create workable solutions.
The business case for empathic leadership is made clear in research conducted with almost 900 employees by the not-for-profit organisation, Catalyst, The Power of Empathy in Times of Crisis and Beyond by Dr Tara van Bommel. Its findings include:
- Empathy boosts productivity – employees with empathic leaders are more innovative and engaged in their work than those with less empathic leaders.
- Empathy in senior leaders is linked to a reduced intent to leave an organisation.
- Empathic leaders foster inclusion.
- Women of colour experience less burnout when they have more empathic senior leaders.
How leaders can demonstrate empathy
If the case for empathic leadership is clear, how can leaders who are naturally lower in empathy, demonstrate more of it? Outlined below, extracted from Catalyst’s research, are the three facets of empathy, with specific actions leaders can take in one-to-one conversations with team members.
This is followed by guidance published in Harvard Business Review from communications expert & coach, Joel Schwartzberg, on how leaders can communicate empathically to groups of employees.
The three facets of empathy
- The first facet is cognitive empathy, which is pausing to imagine how a colleague is feeling and what it must be like to be in their unique perspective, something which it’s all too easy to avoid in a fast-paced environment.
It might sound obvious but leaders should get to know their team members as whole people, not “just workers.”They should also be proactive, inviting their team members to discuss their feelings and reflecting back what they’ve heard to ensure understanding.
- The second is affective empathy, which is feeling concern for someone and/or having similar emotions.
Van Bommel points out that leaders shouldn’t assume their team members know that they care about them, so it’s important to state their concern and that they recognise when something is challenging. And when a difficulty or emotional experience arises for a team member, leaders should give them the space to fully explain it, without jumping in or diverting the conversation.
- The third facet is behavioural empathy, which is demonstrating active listening and a desire to understand more about someone’s experiences and feelings.
Leaders should pay attention to facial expressions and body language – the other person’s to pick up clues about how they may be feeling and their own, to show that they are listening and not multi-tasking. Van Bommel also suggests that when someone pauses, by internally counting to five, while the other person finds their words they can demonstrate that they are listening.
None of this means that leaders have to be specialists in mental health. Demonstrating empathy means being willing to see things from someone else’s perspective and to work out how best to support them with their challenges. It’s not about taking on responsibility for fixing employees or becoming their counsellor.
Leadership communications to groups
In his HBR article 4 ways to communicate with more empathy Joel Schwartzberg, says that “During challenging times, the most effective leadership communications are ones that deliver attention, acknowledge distress, demonstrate care, and — not necessarily at first, but eventually — take appropriate action to mitigate the situation or at least provide comfort.”
He suggests leaders should focus on four “touchpoints” in their communications with groups of employees. These apply to meetings but are also relevant for written, audio or video communications:
Unsurprisingly, the first is listening, because “sometimes just exhibiting an attentive presence can signal deep understanding and empathy.” An example would be “I want to hear about this situation”.
The second is acknowledgment, because “leaders express empathy when they simply acknowledge the challenge and its impact on staff.” Examples include: “I recognise how this reorganisation process can be stressful.”
Because leaders need to go beyond acknowledgement, the third is to express authentic feelings of care. Examples include: “I care deeply about your ability to balance your work life and personal life.”
And although Schwartzberg says that action is typically not considered part of a classic empathic response, leaders can convey empathy in finding solutions. Examples include: “We have extended summer half-day Fridays for all employees.”
An empathic culture not only provides a better working experience for employees, it’s also good for the bottom line. And the good news is that leaders who are less naturally empathic can grow stronger in this area. Many of the behaviours – listening, keeping the focus on the other person, acknowledging their situation and/or challenges and working out the best way forward, are coaching skills.
If you haven’t already considered introducing coaching skills to your leaders, Eluminas can help. You can reach us here.