Empathy in leadership: why it really matters

Empathy helps you deal with the rain.

Empathy in leadership is one of the most important factors influencing workplaces today. A lack of empathy in leadership can have dramatic consequences for staff and teams, leading to behaviour that makes the workplace unpleasant.

Given that one of the most common reasons people leave their jobs is because of their bosses, it stands to reason that a lack of empathy in leadership may be behind many of these resignations.

Why empathy in leadership matters

Empathy basically means putting yourself in the shoes of the people around you and the people you lead. It means attempting to understand how a person is feeling so that you can treat them in a way that is going to bring out the best in the situation.

Conversely, a lack of empathy in leadership often brings out the worst and exacerbates existing issues. Essentially, empathy means realising that leadership is not all about you. You might want that report done or that project finished or to get that bonus, but if you don’t go about things the right way by considering the situation of your team, you may struggle to achieve what you set out to.

Empathy in leadership matters because it allows you to adapt your approach

One of the most common signs of a lack of empathy in leadership is when a leader expects their employees to think the same way as they do.

I’ve seen situations where leaders expect their teams to work very long hours consistently, even though the personal situations of each individual is very different. I’ve seen leaders who focus very little on family or home life and expect this to be mirrored by their teams.

I’ve seen leaders who say “This is a great opportunity for them, they should be grateful for it.” What they fail to realise is that their team member doesn’t have the same goals and aspirations as they do. What is great for you or I may seem like a horrible opportunity to somebody else.

When a leader lacks empathy, they lose the ability to adapt their approach because they don’t see outside of their own heads. If somebody is upset because their pet died, you could give them the day off work. A leader without empathy who doesn’t have pets will instead think “It’s only a pet, get on with the work.” I’ve seen this happen and it has a dramatic effect on the morale of the team and the respect for the leader.

Empathy in leadership matters because you make better judgement calls

I’ve seen some appalling judgement from leaders in recent years.

I’ve seen and heard somebody being told that their position may be made redundant over the phone, in an open-plan office. That person sat behind me and it didn’t end well.

I’ve seen leaders joking in the hallway on the same day that several employees lost their jobs. That made people angry.

I’ve seen leaders smile enthusiastically as they inform the team that they’ll retain their position in the organisation after large job cuts on the same day.

Leaders who lack empathy make poor judgement calls, because they are unable to see things from other perspectives. It only requires a little forethought.

Sally has been seriously ill for the last two days. Shall I force her to work late to catch up when she’s just come back to the office? Probably not, no.

A number of people have just lost their jobs and are having a drink together to process it. Should I talk about how relieved I am to still have my job? No, probably not.

Empathy takes no talent. It doesn’t take rocket science. It doesn’t require amazing amounts of experience. It simply requires some forethought. Taking a step back. Purposefully thinking about how others may feel, rather than focusing on how you feel.

Of course, how you feel as a leader is also important, but it comes second when your team are hurting, irritated or upset. Because being a person is always more important than being an employee. Once you treat the people right, you can focus on what you need from them as employees later.

Stop. Think. Seek to understand, and get out of your own head, because empathy in leadership matters.

Got any interesting stories about a lack of empathy in leadership at your workplace? Or how about how empathy really improved a situation? Leave a comment!

Originally published at comms101.net on June 25, 2016.

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