The Importance of Empathy in Leadership

By SurePeople

Empathy in leadership. It’s one of the most important – yet often overlooked – traits of a successful leader.

Just how important is the ability to understand another person’s thoughts and feelings from their point of view, rather than from your own? Here’s what Oprah Winfrey, one of Fortune magazine’s World’s 50 Greatest Leaders, has to say:

“Leadership is about empathy. It is about having the ability to relate to and connect with people for the purpose of inspiring and empowering their lives.”

If a quote from Oprah doesn’t say enough about leading with empathy, there’s even research that shows it has a positive impact on performance in the workplace. According to a 2016 study by the Center for Creative Leadership, managers who show more empathy toward direct reports are viewed as better performers in their job by their bosses.

Considering how the dynamics of workplace culture and the nature of leadership is shifting – placing a greater emphasis on emotional intelligence, collaboration, and relationship building – it stands to reason that a soft skill like empathy can go a long way. It can also lead to hard results.

For some managers, empathy comes naturally. For others, it is a leadership skill that needs more practice. And, since it is not a fixed trait, we can learn, develop and grow our empathy just like other skills and attributes.

Here are some practical suggestions and tips to help you work on empathy in leadership:

Don’t confuse empathy with sympathy

It’s common to get these two mixed-up. Here’s the difference, courtesy of Dictionary.com: sympathy is feeling compassion, sorrow, or pity for the hardships that another person encounters. Empathy is putting yourself in the shoes of another.

It’s also important to note that empathy doesn’t mean you agree with everyone and everything. Rather, you “thoughtfully consider employees feelings – along with other factors – in the process of making intelligent decisions,” as author and science journalist Daniel Goleman explains in his What Makes a Leader? article with Harvard Business Review.

Always make time to connect with others

Most of us spend more time at work than any other place. That’s probably one of the reasons why building good working relationships with people at all levels is the No. 1 management skill leaders need today, according to a global survey of over 15,000 managers and professionals conducted by the co-authors of “Mind Tools for Managers: 100 Ways to Be a Better Boss.”

Successful leaders build relationships at work by being visible, keeping their door open, and making time to connect with others. They remember names, ask questions, get to know people beyond the workplace, and actively listen during conversations. They also know how important it is to make others feel important and show sincere appreciation for their hard work and efforts.

You can start connecting with others today just by getting out of your office, going to team members where they work, and simply asking how they are doing. And, the next time you need to kick-off a project or have a team meeting, make it a point to ask for opinions and suggestions, and include them in conversations and solutions.

Balance your speaking and listening skills

We all know someone who talks, and talks, and talks. What’s supposed to be a two-way conversation or team meeting is completely one-sided. It gets exhausting. There’s always going to be a time and place for leaders to own the floor. But, you do not want to be known around the office as someone who always dominates conversations.

Listening is one of the most critical skills that demonstrates the importance of empathy in leadership. The quality of your listening impacts the quality of your relationships at work, your influence on the team, and ultimately, the quality of their work, productivity, and performance.

Executive coach and EVP of Culture & Analytics at SurePeople, James Brooks, says, “If we don’t give other people an opportunity to share their viewpoints, or we don’t learn as much as we could, that becomes problematic.” Watch his interview below to hear what the trick is to balance your speaking and listening.

Put your people first

Leadership is not about being in charge and giving orders. Effective leadership is about being a servant leader, putting your team first, empowering others to achieve, leading with empathy, and showing them you care.

Because when people know that you care, they will go the extra mile for you.

To practice putting others first, start by understanding and appreciating that your success in leadership is contingent on the success of your people. It’s not about you. It’s about “we.”

Think about the times in your life when other leaders were there to support you. Did they ask questions? Did they listen to you? Did they communicate with you in an open and honest manner? Try to identify what they did to help you and how you can do the same thing for others.

“These little considerations for others have a building effect,” says Simon Sinek, author of The New York Times’ best-seller “Start With Why: How Great Leaders Inspire Everyone to Take Action,” in this SUCCESS magazine article. “The daily practice of putting the well-being of others first has a compounding and reciprocal effect in relationships.”

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