A much overlooked trait in leadership, the notion of empathy as a soft and non-essential skill is being increasingly challenged. Campaigners, such as Belinda Parmar, founder and CEO of Lady Geek, argue it should be seen as a “commercial tool that can be deployed in all aspects of business” and, far from being ‘soft’, empathy is in fact critical for competent leadership. In this article, Claire McKee from Clarendon Executive considers the meaning of empathy in a business leadership context, whether it’s a skill that can be learned, and offers some tips for developing it.
The Oxford Dictionary defines empathy as the “ability to understand and share the feelings of another.”
In a corporate environment, where empathy is sometimes confused with ‘being nice’, it might best be described as a neutral gathering tool used to create an environment of open communication, trust and effective feedback within the workplace. Leaders with empathy can influence, inspire, engage and help people achieve their true potential.
A Yougov survey published in October 2018 found that 51% of people think empathy has declined over the last year, compared with only 12% who think it has increased. It is a view supported by psychologists, who warn the world is in the midst of an empathy crisis.
It is no surprise then that this modern world empathy deficit has filtered into our working lives and is at risk of deepening with the growing prominence of technology and artificial intelligence, increased mobility of young workers and continued focus on profitability and the bottom line.
As such it is predicted that, in tandem with these workplace shifts, empathy will rise through the ranks to become recognised in the future as one of the most sought after and powerful skills in a leader’s arsenal.
Leading with empathy
The higher performing team member who has recently become disengaged may not be as disinterested as you might first think - question is there any other pressure outside of work that may be affecting their focus, and is there anything you might be able to do to help or support? Consider and recognise the pressure that caring for a elderly parent, after a fall, adds to the workload of a recently appointed manager or the ‘transition period’ that a newly appointed Head of Finance is going through after being promoted over colleagues.
Empathetic leaders will attract the best people and create an environment in which they can develop their skills and potential. It would also seem that leaders who value and exemplify empathy within their companies and teams find that it helps fuel happiness, satisfaction and, ultimately, productivity in the workplace.
Indeed, findings from the Harvard Business Review’s ‘empathy index’ revealed that the 10 most empathetic companies outperformed their less empathetic peers, increasing in value more than twice as much as those at the bottom of the index, and generating 50 per cent more earnings defined by market capitalisation, from one year to the next.
Can empathy be learned?
Some leaders have natural levels of emotional intelligence and empathy but many do not. Fortunately, it is now widely accepted that almost anyone can learn to develop empathy. It is however not a skill that can be learned from reading a textbook or attending a seminar, it takes practice and reflection.
Developing empathy requires self-awareness, self-management, patience, endurance and continued practice over time, requiring commitment on the part of the practitioner.
Top tips for developing empathy in your leadership style
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