Business leaders and their teams are up against a lot. They face economic uncertainty, high turnover rates, and growing customer expectations. Amidst all this change, one skill has proven to be critical: empathy.
Qualtrics’ 2022 Employee Trends analysis identifies declining employee well-being as a critical concern. People have been “digging deeper over these past two years working at home.” With remote and hybrid work leading to longer hours and blurred boundaries between home and work, well-being and resilience have suffered. The report further observes, “People are also burnt out from a workplace culture that doesn’t support, sustain, or restore employee well-being.”
Leaders must prioritize people’s mental and physical health and encourage a culture of well-being. The long-standing view that strong leadership stems from being direct, cutthroat, and decisive, is a misguided assumption. Instead, empathy is essential in countering a toxic culture at work and providing an environment where people want to be. For example, empathetic leaders focus on understanding their team’s emotional situation and demonstrate care, which helps employees cope with stress and build resilience.
While there’s nothing wrong with being assertive when appropriate, good leadership is a balance of many leadership traits (i.e., communication, decision-making, emotional intelligence, leadership management, and support for diversity, inclusion, and belonging).
Empathetic leaders maintain stronger relationships with employees, customers, and clients. This is what builds a positive team culture and keeps the organization growing.
In the 2023 Ernst & Young LLP (EY US) Empathy in Business Survey, workers attributed empathy to “increased efficiency (88%), creativity (87%), job satisfaction (87%), idea sharing (86%), innovation (85%) and even company revenue (83%).”
Although perceived as a “soft skill,” Raj Sharma, EY Americas Consulting Vice Chair, noted “Recent years taught us that leading with empathy is a soft and powerful trait that helps empower employers and employees to collaborate better, and ultimately create a culture of accountability.”
People want to feel appreciated where they work. Empathy helps boost organizational growth by making organizations more attractive to top talent. More empathetic employees are more likely to tune in emotionally and look to address issues impacting their teammates. This strengthens teamwork, morale, and engagement.
Empathetic leadership can also lead to more diverse workforces. With 85% of employees saying it’s “important for organizations to cultivate a climate in which diverse perspectives are valued,” empathetic leadership is needed to provide a work environment that helps all employees feel supported.
So, as pressures mount to successfully lead business transformation efforts, empathy becomes an essential leadership skill. How can companies seek to build solid and compassionate cultures? The following strategies to practice empathetic leadership can help.
Take Apple founder Steve Jobs. Typically lauded as a visionary, Jobs was in 1985 fired from the company for his “dismissive and brusque” style and pushing people too far. His colleague Ed Catmull, founder of Pixar, described him as “emotionally tone-deaf.” But, Jobs took the dismissal as a growth opportunity. He came back to Apple in 1997 as a more empathetic leader and created a legacy.
Jobs’ experience shows us that empathy — the ability to understand another person’s perspective, even when that perspective is different from your own — can be developed.
Rather than just listening to what is said, empathetic leaders hear and absorb the meaning of what is communicated. By being fully present and engaged, they hear the needs at the heart of the conversation and work to understand, not just respond.
An important component of this is avoiding jumping to conclusions, especially negative ones. By trying to understand why a mistake or failure happened, instead of moving right to criticism, empathetic leaders are more likely to identify the root cause of issues. This can help the manager and employee work together to avoid similar issues in the future.
Empathetic leaders also cultivate their ability to understand the feelings and values demonstrated through non-verbal cues such as tone of voice, expressions, how fast or slow they speak, and their physical gestures. Following up to demonstrate active listening has occurred, and openness to feedback and respect for others’ opinions, are also important.
Empathetic leaders recognize every individual has something valuable to add. This helps everyone feel like an active participant in the business of that organization.
These leaders also show sincere interest in team members and work to understand their unique needs and goals. This helps align work assignments with individual objectives, which boosts employee satisfaction and can inspire team members to work even harder for that leader.
Looking at situations from multiple perspectives or angles helps empathetic leaders reach the core issue or gain a more holistic perspective. A Harvard Business Review article cited Paul Bennett, Chief Creative Officer at IDEO, saying, “For most of my twenties I assumed that the world was more interested in me than I was in it, so I spent most of my time talking, usually in a quite uninformed way, about whatever I thought, rushing to be clever, thinking about what I was going to say to someone rather than listening to what they were saying to me.”
Empathetic leaders, on the other hand, understand that their thoughts and beliefs aren’t paramount. They work to listen more and ask the right questions. By trying to put themselves in the place of others, and see situations through others’ eyes, they can better understand what employees, clients, or customers may want or need.
Practicing self-awareness, empathetic leaders can understand and regulate their own emotions to avoid being influenced or overwhelmed by the teams’ strong emotions. Even under pressure, or when frustrated, these leaders recognize employees’ emotional needs and avoid devaluing their feelings.
Drawing on emotional intelligence, empathetic leaders also set boundaries between their professional and personal lives to better self-regulate and present a consistent presence at work.
Business benefits exist when leaders show inclusive empathy. An article in the 2022 Journal of Applied Behavioral Science observes, “A leader needs to understand and reflect upon the patterns and routines that may have quietly manifested at work and the interactions with others that follow on.”
Recognizing “this is easier said than done,” the authors suggest reflection as a powerful tool to assist leaders. Reflecting on emotions brought to interactions can help “increase conscientiousness, presence, and curiosity toward each individual.”
In the last half-decade, many organizations have embraced empathy. Yet it is more than a buzzword. Empathetic leadership can support business growth. To effectively motivate and lead, practice developing and showing empathy for everyone.
See firsthand how empathetic leadership leads to a team that feels valued, included, and driven to help the business succeed.