Legendary film critic Roger Ebert once said, “I believe empathy is the most essential quality of civilization.” And, from my own personal experiences, I couldn’t agree more. The first example that comes to mind was a former boss. I learned a lot from him on how to be an effective leader, and I greatly respected him. That’s why I was taken aback on one specific occasion. This boss taught me why empathy is the most critical leadership skill as a result of “doing it wrong.”
An acquaintance of mine had been in a car accident. Unfortunately, he passed away. The next day while at work, I was lost in thought and not really myself. I overheard my boss ask a co-worker what my problem was.
While I was upset, I was still at work and able to do my job. I was surprised that the boss didn’t ask me what was going on directly. And why say this to someone right next to me where I would overhear? This particular individual boss must have had lower-emotional-intelligence to act in this manner. I obviously wasn’t broadcasting this news to my co-workers. Maybe this boss was busy — but in my grieving self — I took his actions as a sign that he lacked empathy, and that bothered me. I didn’t necessarily want to explain what was going on. I just wanted him to understand that emotionally, I wasn’t at 100 percent.
Since then, I’ve made it a point to be an empathetic person — at work and home. It’s actually something that I continue to work on since I feel it’s helped me become a better person. On top of that, I would say that empathy is also arguably the most important skill one can possess –especially when you’re in a leadership role.
What is empathy, and why is it important?
In simplest terms, empathy is putting yourself in someone else’s shoes. However, Psychology Today has a more detailed definition; “Empathy is the experience of understanding another person’s thoughts, feelings, and condition from his or her point of view, rather than from one’s own. Empathy facilitates prosocial or helping behaviors that come from within, rather than being forced, so that people behave in a more compassionate manner.”
There are three types of empathy:
- Affective empathy is being able to understand someone else’s emotions and respond appropriately.
- Somatic empathy is where physically experience what someone else is experiencing. For example, you may blush when you see someone who has just been embarrassed.
- Cognitive empathy is when you’re able to understand another person’s mental state, like thinking about what is going through their mind.
When you’re able to experience empathy, you’re more likely to build and fortify social connections. It also encourages you to regulate your own emotions. And it promotes helping behaviors.
Those aren’t just amazing traits as a person; they’re also ones that will make you a better leader. Empathy is always important in life, but here are the reasons empathy is so meaningful for leadership, as well.
It’s in our DNA.
“Evolutionary biology and neuroscience have taught us that humans are hard-wired for empathy from birth,” wrote Maria Ross in a previous Entrepreneur article. While writing her book, The Empathy Edge: Harnessing the Value of Compassion as an Engine for Success, Ross found that the idea of empathy being is “an innate part of our humanness spawned the concept of Homo Empathicus. This Latin phrase, Homo Empathicus, is the concept that we as humans survive and thrive on collaboration and belonging, not on self-interest or isolation.”
Simon Sinek also found that we find comfort in being a part of a group. “Our confidence that we can face the dangers around us depends on feeling safe in a group,” Sinek says. “Being on the periphery is dangerous. The loner on the edge of the group is far more susceptible to predators than someone who is safely surrounded and valued by others.”
Because of this, this explains why empathy is so vital. When we help others and feel valued, it releases serotonin and oxytocin — or as Sinek says, “all the warm and fuzzies.”
“This carries over in the business world, as more and more studies reveal that employees do their best work when supported by empathetic cultures and leaders,” adds Ross.
Empathy creates a more loyal, engaged, and productive team.
Empathy creates bonds. It also shows that you care, value, and understand others. For example, an employee’s performance may be suffering because they’re going through a personal matter. As a consequence, they’re battling insomnia or not able to give 100% at work.
Instead of questioning their work ethic or talent, getting to the root of the problem lets them know that you have a personal interest and concern for them. In other words, they’re not an employee. But an individual that you have affection for.
When your team feels like they’re valued, appreciated, and cared for, they become more loyal, engaged, and productive. Studies show that as leadership demonstrates empathy, employees are willing to put in more effort. And, as a bonus, you’re more likely to retain them. Creating loyal teams includes your virtual teams too.
“Empathy means listening attentively, putting your complete focus on the person in front of you without becoming distracted,” writes Lolly Daskal. “As a leader, you are present to listen, understand, assist, and support, not to advise or fix or reply but simply to be.”
“Being present means allowing others to have their moment, and it teaches us as leaders to be patient. It means putting others ahead of yourself,” adds Daskal. That may be challenging in such a competitive world, But, it’s vital if you want to get the most out of your team.
When your staff is happy, everyone reaps the benefits. Not only are they more productive, but that positive energy can also be spread to others like your other employees and customers. Imagine if an employee wasn’t in the best of spirits and took that out on colleague or customer. Besides breeding a more toxic work environment, that customer may vow not to support your business again.
Furthermore, it’s another way to keep your top talent. One study found that 66% of employees would quit if they felt underappreciated.
Fosters innovation collaboration.
When people feel like their voices are being heard because you have an interest in what they have to say, they’re more willing to share their ideas. Those innovative solutions could improve not only their performance but the output from everyone within the entire organization.
Additionally, empathy leads to a more collaborative workplace. The main reason is that they feel safe expressing their thoughts and ideas. But, because you know what’s going on behind the scenes, you can also identify the best way for them to work. For example, if a colleague recently lost a loved one, you could allow them to work from home for the next couple of weeks. If you are forcing an employee to come into work, this is not going to create a pleasant environment. Starting a new project with another department head would be even worse.
How to practice empathy.
If you believe that you’re in short supply of empathy, you can easily enhance this skill by:
- Getting to know people better, such as their interests and background.
- Stop rushing to judgments and critiques.
- Listening more and talking less.
- Becoming more aware of other’s needs.
- Ask someone how they are doing if you notice they may not be feeling well, or when you think that something’s wrong.
- Being genuine and even a little vulnerable.
In turn, this will make you a better person, as well as a more focused and inspiring leader. And, this will eventually breed a more creative, dedicated, and productive team.