Empathy – A Leader’s Greatest Gift

It’s the planning season for many companies. Hours will be spent evaluating past performance, strategies and market opportunities all for the purpose of creating an exciting and profitable future. Often that picture is one of success. A picture you’ve gotten so close to achieving, but which always seems to slip away sometime during the year. You tell yourself next year will be different. Plans will be detailed. Budgets will be prepared and presentations will be made in the hope that everyone will be dedicated to the work ahead.  So much depends on the enthusiastic commitment of all hands on deck to get there. Unfortunately, as we’ve often seen, we fall short of the level of support we need to achieve our goals. What’s missing?

I believe that support and engagement comes more from our employee’s response to leadership than it does from the vision and plans themselves. Teddy Roosevelt said, “Nobody cares how much you know, until they know how much you care.” When it comes to running a company, you can try to communicate and engage all you want and you’ll get the smiles and nods you expect. But people will go back to doing their jobs as they always have until they know you truly care, and when they do, they’ll do just about anything to support you. One trait that communicates to others that you care is sincere empathy.

Empathy is a word we hear a lot, but you might be uncertain of its meaning. Empathy is often confused with sympathy. It does not mean you have to agree with how someone is feeling or can even relate to those feelings. Instead, empathy involves being aware of how someone might feel even when you can’t sympathize with them. If you can appreciate what another person is going through, even without agreeing, you’re displaying empathy. Empathy is critical to leadership because it builds trust and without trust you’re not leading people, you’re managing them.

Listening is certainly part of empathic leadership, but listening with empathy goes beyond the words. It involves trying to understand the other person and the emotion and feelings behind their words. It doesn’t mean you have to agree with how they see it. Rather, it means you’re willing to try to see it through their eyes.  Empathic leadership is also non-judgmental. When we take the time to understand the needs of our people, we provide them with the support and safety they require to deal with the challenges or issues that might be holding them back from achieving their, and our goals.

Empathic leadership is also central to our being. Humans are by nature wired for sociability and attachment to others. We are driven to connect and care for those we interact with. You only need to turn on the television and hear about a natural disaster to feel the emotion and urgency to help others.

There are several things that happen when people know their leaders care about them:

  • Empathy allows people to feel safe in their short-comings and instills a sense of personal responsibility
  • It creates the basis for higher expectations and the safety net required for people to reach for riskier goals
  • It encourages leaders to understand the root cause behind poor performance and creates credibility, understanding and cooperation for difficult performance conversations
  • Empathy allows leaders to build and develop deeper relationships with those they lead.

If your employees don’t feel they’re cared about by their leaders, they will always feel they have to look out for their own interests. On the other hand, with an empathic leader, the employee knows that their feelings won’t be overlooked or ignored. Like children, they may not always get their way and may even have to suffer the consequences of their choices and actions, but they never doubt that their leader cares about them and has their best interest in mind.

When it comes to the keys for successful leadership, empathy is not often mentioned. However, I think it’s one of those common sense human nature concepts that applies to everything we do. So, as you plan that exciting year ahead, ask yourself: “How do your people know you truly care about them? How does your culture and leadership style reinforce it?” If you’re serious about next year being the one that doesn’t get away, learn how it feels to walk in other people’s shoes.

If you’d like to discuss how you can become a more empathic leader, call or reach me through the “contact us” tab on this page.

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