The Need for Empathy in Leadership. What is leadership? At its core, it’s not a job title. It’s not authority, or control, or power.
Ultimately, leadership is a relationship between two human beings: A leader and a follower.
In the industrial age, followers were expected to passively accept the commands of those in charge. In their industrial settings, the priorities were efficiency and conformity. Thinking for oneself was not encouraged. Henry Ford, founder of Ford motor company, famously said of his employees “Why is it when I want a pair of hands, they come with a brain attached?”
In today’s digital age of knowledge work, command and control has lost its iron grip. Critical thinking and creative problem solving is no longer the province of “management”- it’s been pushed all the way out to the front lines.
Everyone is expected to show up to work with a brain attached and know how to use it.
This shift from manual labour to knowledge work has changed the nature of the leader/follower relationship. Following is a choice. Every day, skilled knowledge workers make a choice to loan (or withhold) their discretionary efforts. That choice is based on their perception of the relationship they have with their leader. Do they trust their leader and feel trusted by them? Do they feel safe being authentic, and bringing their whole selves to work?
It turns out there’s one leadership ability that’s required to increase this perception of safety and trust: Caring for the people you lead. Research has found that employees who say they have more supportive supervisors are 1.3 times as likely to stay with the organisation and are 67 percent more engaged.
The Need for Empathy in Leadership …
Caring for people isn’t just some warm and fuzzy idea. It’s a learned behaviour. The skill is developed by consistently demonstrating empathy.
Empathy is defined as showing people you understand them and care how they feel. On the surface, it sounds like a basic innate trait. But it’s not. A 2019 study found that while 92% of CEOs report that their organisations are empathetic, only 50% of employees in their organisations say their CEOs are empathetic.
Why is leading with empathy such a challenge? There are two big reasons: impatience and fear.
Showing people that you care about them isn’t some item to check off your daily to-do list. If you try to fake empathy, people can smell it. Showing genuine empathy means showing patience. Human relationships take time.
Patience is in short supply these days. Most people have more to do than time to do it in. You’ve got results to deliver. However, driving for results shouldn’t come at the expense of driving over the people who are trying to help produce those results. Leadership wisdom is knowing when to go fast, and when to go slow.
Many leaders are afraid of emotions in the workplace. They subscribe to a “check your feelings at the door” policy. Until the 21st Century, this was standard practice in most organisations. There’s just one major problem with this policy: It’s impossible to check your feelings at the door. At best, you can suppress your feelings at the door.
Sadly, this is exactly what’s happening. A study found that 61% employees cover their identity in some way, because they don’t feel safe being fully themselves at work. In doing so, they disconnect. This perpetuates a lower trust, lower performance culture.
The Need for Empathy in Leadership …
Expanding Your Empathy Circle
Humans are hardwired to care how others feel. It’s what enables us to rush towards a baby when we hear it cry out. Yet, while we hardwired to empathise with others, we don’t express it with all others. Some people are in our empathy circle, others are excluded. What makes the difference? Whether we already have a sense of familiarity and connection with them. Family members and friends make the cut. Strangers don’t.
To expand your empathy circle, seek to connect. Make time for building relationships. Ask open ended questions. Genuinely listen. Be curious. Seek to learn more about others and understand their perspective.
Such actions form the basis of inclusivity. Being inclusive means including everyone into your empathy circle. When you show people that you understand them and care how they feel, they feel like they’re in the “In” group. By doing that, you build trust, strengthen communication, and improve collaboration.
In other words, you become a better leader.