I recently conducted a social experiment. I asked ten people what the first word that came to mind when I said the word “empathy”. The responses varied from: “touchy feely ugh-ness” to “the softest of soft skills” to “the cornerstone of trust” to “the ability to put yourself in someone else’s shoes”. It is not lost on me that I asked for a word, and every single person gave me a few words or a phrase; but I digress…
empathy : noun – em·pa·thy \ ˈem-pə-thē \ – the ability to understand and share the feelings of another; “the ability to step into the shoes of another person, aiming to understand their feelings and perspectives, and to use that understanding to guide actions” – unknown
Empathy is having the ability to sense what other people are feeling and thinking. IT is having the awareness of other people’s feelings that helps you to understand the other person’s needs. Empathy is more of an art than a science, it’s more grey than black or white and the unspoken, non-verbal cues are often much “louder” than actual words.
Here’s what I know to be true about empathy: it is NOT weakness, it is NOT agreement, it is NOT a “caving in” mentality and it is most certainly NOT a skill that only women value or are good at.
Why is empathy a critical leadership skill?
1.Empathy encourages dialogue and connection between leaders and employees. It is an opportunity for leaders to build trust and develop authentic relationships with the employees that they lead. “The path to gaining respect is paved with knowledge and empathy” – Evan Brown
2.Through empathy, leaders will gain a greater awareness and understanding of the needs of their employees – what drives them, what motivates them, and what they value most. If leaders understand their what motivates their employees, how they want to be treated, what is important to them – personally and professionally, leaders will be in a better position to guide, inspire and motivate their employees and teams.
3.Empathy creates an opportunity for leaders to see, hear, understand and explore problems through the employee’s eyes. It is a further opportunity for leaders to remove barriers or help employees to navigate challenging situations.
4.In negotiations, empathy helps you to understand what motivates the other side – understanding what drives the other side, what’s less important to them and why is key to determining which concessions to make and where to hold your ground. Using empathy can lead to win-win outcomes in negotiations.
5.Empathetic leaders are viewed as better performers. When researchers at the Centre for Creative Leadership looked at a sample of over 6,700 leaders from 38 countries they found that “empathy is positively related to job performance. Managers who show more empathy toward direct reports are viewed as better performers in their job by their bosses.”
My favourite way that I’ve ever heard empathy described was in a passage by Thich Nhat Hanh:
“When you plant lettuce, if it does not grow well, you don’t blame the lettuce. You look into the reasons it is not doing well. It may need fertilizer, or more water, or less sun. You never blame the lettuce. Yet if we have problems with our friends or our family, we blame the other person. But if we know how to take care of them, they will grow well, like lettuce. Blaming has no positive effect at all, nor does trying to persuade using reason and arguments. That is my experience. No blame, no reasoning, no argument, just understanding. If you understand, you can love, and the situation will change.”
I believe that the same is true for the workplace. If leaders try to understand their employees, they will be better able to support them and nurture them. Trust, relationships, collaboration and loyalty will be strengthened, employees will feel empowered and engaged, service and productivity will improve and creativity and innovation will be harnessed.