Updated: Jul 22
Empathy is one of the most important qualities a leader can have, however, it is often underestimated. The truth is an empathetic leadership style brings great benefits that can leverage a company’s success. Let’s take a look at the important role empathy plays in organizations and how you can become an empathetic leader.
What does empathy mean?
Empathy is the ability to understand and be sensitive to another person’s feelings, thoughts and actions. Essentially, it means being able to put oneself in the other’s shoes and imagine how they must be feeling in certain situations and why they act the way they do.
What is an empathetic leader? An empathetic leader is one who has a genuine interest in his/her team members’ lives, the challenges they face, and their overall feelings. This kind of leader makes an effort to understand their situations and what they are going through, in order to offer support and help. Empathy is a key element of servant leadership as well although not all empathetic leaders practice servant leadership. Overall, an empathetic leader interacts with others in a way that leaves them feeling safe and cared for, and as though they have a connection based on trust.
Why is empathy important in the workplace? In order for employees to feel comfortable in the workplace, empathy must be one of the fundamental assets. Say you have two hypothetical workplaces... The first one is a workplace that has a hostile atmosphere, where your team leader and coworkers are stressed out and looking out for themselves as individuals rather than for the team as a whole. The second one is a workplace that you look forward to going to, where there is a relaxed atmosphere where workers know they can rely on one another and on the team as a whole to achieve great things for the organization.
Where would you feel more comfortable, productive, and motivated? The second scenario sounds more appealing, doesn’t it? This kind of workplace is achieved through empathetic relationships between coworkers, amongst other practices. Moreover, an empathetic leader is a person in charge of promoting these kinds of relationships within the team members. So it’s safe to say that it all starts from the top, and trickles down to the rest of the organization: A leader that shows empathy to his/her team will have a team that demonstrates empathy and trust from the inside out.
This is why empathy is so important in the workplace. An empathetic workplace leads to employees who feel safe and taken care of within their organization, and therefore feel a sense of trust and belonging within the team. All these qualities are fundamental in order to achieve a highly effective, motivated, and productive company.
Empathetic leadership vs. other styles In order to differentiate it from other styles of leadership, here are the five fundamental characteristics of empathetic leadership:
1. Motivation This kind of leadership aims at motivating others to become the best version of themselves, and so they are able to bring that to their team and their workplace. 2. Communication In order to understand where each person is at and be able to work as a collaborative team, communication is fundamental for this leadership style. 3. Support The team members must feel supported and taken care of by their empathetic leader and their colleagues, as this will generate a feeling of safety within the team. Moreover, workers know they don’t have to feel on edge and as though they must prioritize protecting themselves, but rather taking care of each other and their team. 4. Community focus Empathetic leadership generates a sense of community, belonging, and purpose. It creates a connection between employees that almost mimics a family, working together, having each other’s backs, and working towards the same goals. 5. A high level of awareness A team that has an empathetic leadership style is a highly self-aware team. Their ability to communicate, support, and motivate each other enables them to have a great insight as to where their team is at and what it needs in order to achieve the goals they have set.
Five traits that define an empathetic leader
An empathetic leader is…
1. Approachable This is a person who others see as a human being, who is there to interact with them and help them. Let us not forget that leadership doesn’t have to imply hierarchy, which is often an intimidating concept when one thinks about approaching a person who is at a higher level. Leadership is more related to being a person your team can look to for guidance and help. 2. Makes employees feel taken care of An empathetic leader shows interest in their team members’ lives, their thoughts and feelings, and the challenges they may be facing. After taking the time to listen to them and evaluate, this leader will think of ways of helping them fulfill their needs to create a dynamic that works for them within the team. The empathetic leader models compassion and self-compassion and encourages it in their team members to strengthen resilience. 3. Involves others in the conversation They are able to include the whole team in the evaluation of how the team is doing, sharing their opinions, giving feedback, and brainstorming ideas for how to improve or overcome challenges together. 4. Flexible An empathetic leader is one who is able to adapt to others and validate other’s propositions and opinions. If a team member comes up with a new and innovative idea that could be incredibly beneficial for a certain project and communicates it to the (approachable) leader, he/she will listen and validate this idea, and take it on board if it sounds like a good one. 5. Motivates and empowers their team An empowered and motivated team is a highly effective one. This leader makes others feel like they have a voice in the team. He/she encourages employees to speak up, be innovative, participate, and take on new challenges. This kind of leader will also delegate in their team members, which creates a sense that their leader trusts and believes in them, and therefore empowers them further.
Is empathy a skill or a trait? The answer is simple: empathy is both a skill and a trait. It has been shown that empathy has a genetic basis. This means that within the empathy spectrum, there are people who are naturally more empathetic than others, because of their biological and genetic predisposition. However, given a person’s predisposition, empathy is also a skill that can be trained to become a more empathetic person. Much like a muscle, that can be trained to get stronger and stronger, empathy can be trained through certain practices that help increase it. So the next question is: in order to become more empathetic, how is empathy trained and practiced?
Six steps to becoming an empathetic leader
1. Take care of yourself. Mental health is underestimated when it comes to being a leader. Many people ask themselves “what does my private mental state have to do with my performance as a leader?”. The truth is it plays a big role in how you interact with employees as a leader: if you aren’t able to show up for yourself, you will find it more difficult to show up for others. Notice how your mental state influences the way you see things at work, the way you interact with your team, and the way you manage it. Even empathy and compassion can leave you fatigued. Taking part in practices that boost your mental health is a good way to start. Some examples are exercising, scheduling in time with family and friends, a good sleep schedule, and a healthy diet. 2. Use your eyes and your ears. Be present with your team members, take the time to really listen to them, be curious and ask questions. Show them that you are genuinely interested in knowing them and their lives. Also, look out for body language signs, and point them out. This is a great way to show that you are really looking out for them. 3. Set an example. As a leader, your job is to also promote empathetic relationships within the team. By interacting with the team members in this way, you will encourage them to do the same. You can also motivate them to do so by proposing dynamics and activities that promote team building and looking out for one another. 4. Look out for red flags. As a leader, you have to be incredibly intuitive. Your job is to evaluate the state of your team and from there be able to lead it and create a context that enables them to bring the best version of themselves to the team. When you catch a red flag that indicates that something isn’t right, bring it to the surface, talk about it and deal with it as a team. 5. Find the “why.” It can be very easy to judge someone’s actions right off the bat. As an empathetic leader, try to move past initial judgments, and really listen to the reasons an employee has for doing something or acting a certain way. You might be surprised and find yourself with a broader perspective that enables you to act more effectively as a leader. 6. Instead of being a master, become a student. A master goes through life thinking their way is the best way, and having no room for new ideas or growth. As a leader, you must learn to be a student, who is eager to learn, listen to new ideas, and implement innovative ways. To achieve this, you must encourage others to participate and think out of the box, brainstorm together, debate new ideas, and learn from them.