Why Empathy is the Most Critical Leadership Skill
Although it has always been a vital leadership talent, empathy is now being given more weight and importance. It is far from a soft approach and can produce important corporate outcomes.
Although you may already be aware that showing empathy is good for individuals, new research highlights its significance for everything from innovation to retention. Empathy is at the top of the list of qualities that great leaders must master to create the conditions for engagement, happiness, and performance.
“Sawubona” is a Zulu greeting which means “we see you”. We saw a version of that idea in the movie Avatar. It’s a way of recognizing that how they understand what they see around them is a reflection of their perception derived from their own experiences and the stories and ideas passed down to them through their family and community.
Similarly, leaders need to remember that how we feel colours our perception of what we see going on around us and consequently, it’s important to understand those feelings so that we can respond and manage them accordingly.
What is Empathy?
Empathy can be defined as “an individual’s internal responses to another person’s cognitive and affective experience that is congruent with, and informs understanding of, the other’s experience.” It is also referred to as “the action of understanding, being aware of, being sensitive to, and vicariously experiencing the feelings, thoughts, and experience of another of either the past or present without having the feelings, thoughts, and experience fully communicated in an objectively explicit manner.”
Empathy should not be confused with sympathy, which is “a relationship or an affinity between people or things in which whatever affects one correspondingly affects the other,” or compassion which is “deep awareness of the suffering of another coupled with the wish to relieve it.”
The term “empathy” first appeared in psychological literature in 1910, when it was translated it into English from the German term, “Einfuhlung,” literally meaning “to feel oneself into”. Empathy later came to refer to a means for humans to understand each other as individuals with thoughts and feelings.
Empathy gained popularity as a psychological construct in the 1960s after the development of Rogers’ humanistic psychotherapeutic approach, in which empathy is a central component. However, for many years, most empathy-focused research was concentrated in the developmental and social areas of psychology and was represented very little in the clinical and neurological psychology literature. In the past 20 years, the empirical investigation of empathy has gained momentum, and the construct of empathy has evolved.
Some researchers have categorized empathy as either a cognitive process or an affective connection to another, while others conceptualize empathy within an integrated framework that encompasses both cognitive and affective components. The challenges to defining empathy are further complicated by the multifaceted nature of the experience of empathy. Qualitative phenomenological research has found that some individuals experience and conceptualize empathy on a cognitive level (e.g., “I know what it is like to experience a car accident.”), while others have an effective understanding of empathy (e.g., “I understand why she feels so hurt when her mother doesn’t return her calls.”). Furthermore, empathy has been described as a dispositional trait, a context-specific state, as well as a psychological process.
What Are The Kinds of Empathy?
According to Daniel Goleman, there are three types of empathy. The first is cognitive empathy, which is intellectual awareness of the feelings, opinions and thoughts of others. Emotional empathy is the second, described as an ability to share the same emotional experience as another person. The third type is compassionate empathy, exemplified when we make efforts to help based on our understanding of the needs and feelings of others. The way we apply the three types of empathy also requires balance.
Daniel Siegel, a UCLA psychiatrist, calls the brain areas that create this resonance the “we” circuitry. Being in the bubble of a “we” with another person can signify chemistry, that sense of rapport that makes whatever we’re doing together go well — whether it’s in sales or a meeting, in the classroom, or between a couple. Dr. Siegel has even written about how to do this with your teenager.
We see the third variety, empathic concern, spring into action whenever someone expresses their caring about another person. This kind of empathy partakes of the brain’s circuitry for parental love — it’s a heart-to-heart connection. But it’s not out of place at work: you see it when a leader lets people know that he will support them, that he or she can be trusted, and that they are free to take risks rather than maintain a too-safe defensive posture.
The Importance of Empathy in Our Lives and Work
The past few years have been tumultuous. In addition to the natural disasters, threat of wars and violence, everywhere you looked there were lines drawn between groups in Us vs. Them scenarios — such as the political situation in the U.S. — which has been linked to a rise in hate crimes and xenophobia to heated immigration debates . Sadly, too often, one group cannot or will not put itself in the shoes of the other. Such lack of empathy has been called out by world leaders, including the German Chancellor Angela Merkel. In her New Year’s address, Merkel declared, “My wishes for the New Year are for us to become aware again of that which holds us together at heart; that we focus again on what we have in common; and for us to strive to have more consideration for others.”
In the book, Born for Love: Why Empathy is Essential and Endangered, Maria Szalavitz and Bruce D. Perry (MD, Ph.D.) argue we have become the most successful species primarily because we can be empathetic and develop and maintain nurturing mutually beneficial relationships. As the authors put it, the human species survive because of our capacity to love. And our capacity to love is based on our ability to put ourselves in someone else’s position and care about their circumstances — that is to empathize with them.
Ray Krznaric, author of Empathy: Why It Matters, and How to Get It, sums it up nicely: “Empathy in the modern workplace is not just about being able to see things from another perspective. It’s the cornerstone of teamwork, good innovative design, and smart leadership. It’s about helping others feel heard and understood.”
Empathy is a critical component of emotional intelligence and we should be requiring that skill/trait in selecting and promoting our leaders.
The predominant stereotype of a leader in our organizations and government has been one that features a white male, usually tall, an extrovert, confident, sometimes aggressive, decisive, and goal or task-focused. Traits and behaviors associated with emotional intelligence, such as empathy and compassion either have been seen to be weaknesses or less valued.
Yet, there is increasingly compelling evidence, despite the rising popularity of charismatic authoritarian leaders globally, that the stereotype leader is becoming increasingly dysfunctional and not suited to the global, interconnected world which values positive relationships and collaboration.
Toxic Workplaces and Toxic Leaders
Books such as Transforming Toxic Leaders, The Allure of Toxic Leaders, Rising Above the Toxic Workplace, and Eye of the Storm: How Mindful Leaders Can Transform Chaotic Workplaces describe in detail the corrosive characteristics of workplaces where people are not valued and treated without respect and care.
In my article, “The Rise of Toxic Leaders and Toxic Workplaces,” I argue the following: “Books, articles, seminars and speeches abound espousing the virtues of great leaders, effusive in their description of men and women who are selfless, humble, empathetic,compassionate, emotionally intelligent and altruistic. Hordes of consultants, university professors, researchers and coaches make their living espousing the need for choosing these kinds of leaders. We tend to choose or follow a very different kind of leader. We often hire and promote psychopaths, narcissists, bullies and autocrats dedicated to self-interest, whose long-term impact has and can damage and even destroy organizations (and possibly even countries).In my two decades as an executive coach, I have encountered more of the leaders described in this paragraph than those described in the first paragraph. Many people easily forgive these toxic leaders and the harm they cause because they measure their success solely in financial terms or because they bring charismatic entertainment value to the organization.”
Why Empathy Has Been Undervalued and Underdeveloped in Business
Research has demonstrated that business students and business leaders seem to have lower degrees of empathy. Benjamin M.P. Cuff, Sarah Brown and her colleagues, in their study published in Emotion Review,for instance, assert that multiple studies are reporting that business students are more focused on self-interest than students in other fields. They found that empathetic and narcissistic personality traits were significant predictors of ethical decision-making. They further noticed that, of all business areas, finance students were the least empathetic and most narcissistic.
The researchers paint a grim picture of business students: they cheat more (holding the record with a 50% higher rate of reported cheating than any other major); are less cooperative, more likely to conceal instructors’ mistakes, less willing to yield and more likely to defect in bargaining games. Brown asserts that the mentality of unethical and narcissistic behavior follows business students into their professional careers, leading to the immoral organizational patterns we have come to know so well in recent years. They feel that business schools are still focusing too much on academic and social skill sets that will help students succeed in a competitive world and too little on inter-human or ‘‘softer’’ skills.
Tara Pepper reveals a concerning fact about narcissism in business leaders. While this quality is often sought in corporate leaders, because the right dosage of narcissism can lead to optimal innovation, there is often only a thin line that distinguishes brilliant thinking narcissists, who are also charismatic and visionary, from business executives psychopaths such as Bernie Ebbers and Dennis Koslowski, who use their skills in harmful ways that we have all come to witness in recent years.
Roger Karnes confirms that ‘‘empathy and social skills are under trained and underdeveloped by organizations’’, and explains the downward spiral effect that starts with leadership void of emotional intelligence, leading to less empathy and social skills overall in organizations, expressed through employer–employee abuse, and ending in growing employee discontentment and all its consequences.
Considering the challenges of the fast-paced contemporary organizational environment, Wendy Mill Chalmers draws that there should be a positive correlation between hard demands and soft skills. ‘‘The ‘faster’ the workplace the more essential it is to inspirational leadership with emotional intelligence and an empathy and understanding of the development needs of their staff’’.
Mill Chalmers’ adds that modern leaders need to engage in ‘‘21st-century enlightenment’’, thereby not just responding to modern values, but shaping them. She reviews the ideology of possessive individualism that has become synonymous with consumer capitalism and democracy and concludes that modern capitalism has fed self-interest, greed and unethical behavior, and undervalued empathy.
Yet, while empathy seems to be on the rise as a recognized leadership prerequisite, other sources warn that this quality takes time to develop. A 2006 study from the UCL Institute of Cognitive Neuroscience found that young people are less capable of empathy-based emotions than more mature ones. The study, which was conducted by University College London, and presented at a British Association for the Advancement of Science festival at the University of East Anglia, concluded that the medial prefrontal cortex, which is the part of the brain that is ‘‘associated with higher-level thinking, empathy, guilt and understanding other people’s motivations — is often under-used in the decision-making process of teenagers’’. The study further reveals that the maturity process brings about a shift in brain use from the back part to the front, which is where the ‘‘soft behaviors’’, as McDonald earlier labelled them, are triggered.
The Impacts of Stress
Since individuals are under a lot of stress from different sources, including the epidemic and how our lives and our jobs have been turned upside down, empathy is crucial.
Mental Health. 42% of people worldwide, according to a Qualtrics study, (Qualtrics, SAP, and Mind Share Partners) of more than 2,000 employees conducted at the end of March and early April 2020 in Australia, France, Germany, New Zealand, Singapore, the UK and the US.have seen a decline in their mental health. In particular, 67% of persons report higher levels of stress, 57% higher levels of worry, and 54% higher levels of emotional exhaustion. 53% of respondents report feeling depressed, 50% report being irritable, 28% have difficulty focusing, 20% report taking longer to complete chores, 15% report difficulty thinking, and 12% report difficulty juggling their obligations.
According to the Qualtrics study, People reported higher levels of mental health when leaders were seen as more empathetic.
Private Lives. According to a study by Charlotte Fritz and colleagues published in Occupational Health Science, incivility at work affects our ability to sleep. Employees who receive nasty emails at work are likely to experience negativity and spillover into their personal lives, especially with their spouses, according to research by YoungAh Park from the University of Illinois. In addition, a Carleton University study by Angela Diionisi discovered that adults tend to feel less capable as parents when they encounter rudeness at work.
Work Performance. According to a study by Christine Porath and Amir Erez that appeared in the Academy of Management Journal, persons who experience rudeness at work perform worse and are less likely to lend a hand to others. Additionally, Porath’s recent Georgetown University study indicated that there is an increase in workplace disrespect, which has wide-ranging consequences such as decreased performance and collaboration, poor customer experiences, and higher attrition.
Empathy Leads to Beneficial Outcomes
As we face adversity, battle burnout, or find it difficult to find happiness at work, empathy may be a potent remedy and help people and teams have positive experiences. According to a recent Catalyst research study of 889 employees, empathy has the following notable positive effects:
- Innovation. People were more likely to say they were able to be innovative when they said their leaders were empathetic — 61% of employees versus only 13% of employees with less empathetic leaders.
- Engagement. Compared to only 32% of those who encountered less empathy from their leaders, 76% of those who felt it said they were engaged.
- Retention. 62% of women of colour and 57% of white women reported that they were less inclined to consider leaving their employers when they felt that their circumstances were acknowledged and valued by their employers. However, only 14% and 30%, respectively, of white women and women of colour, indicated they were unlikely to consider leaving when they didn’t feel that degree of value or respect for their living circumstances.
- Inclusivity. People with compassionate leaders are more likely to indicate that their workplace is inclusive (50% vs. 17% for those with less compassionate leaders).
- Work-Life. People who felt their leaders were more sympathetic reported being able to successfully balance their personal, family, and job responsibilities, according to 86% of respondents. Cooperation is also a key to this. A study that appeared in Evolutionary Biology found that integrating empathy into decision-making boosted collaboration and even led people to become more empathic. More empathy was produced via empathy.
The Empathy Gene
Moreover, empathy appears to be a natural trait. In a study at Lund University by Elia Psouni and colleagues, children as young as two showed an understanding that other people had viewpoints that are different from their own. Additionally, according to a study by James A. Coan from the University of Virginia, people’s brains activate in the same region when they see their friends under threat, just as they do when they are. People felt as strongly for their teams and friends as they did for themselves. Because of all of these factors, empathy is crucial to the human experience both at work and in our personal life.
The Empathetic Leader
Leaders can show empathy in two different ways. The first option is cognitive empathy, which asks, “If I were in his or her shoes, what would I be thinking right now?” Through the use of emotional empathy (“Being in his/her position would make me feel ___”), leaders can also concentrate on the feelings of a person. However, leaders will be most successful when they clearly express their worries and ask about difficulties, then listen to their team members’ comments. This is in addition to considering others personally.
Leaders can show they care and are paying attention without having to be specialists in mental health. It’s sufficient to check in, inquire, and observe the employee to see how much information they are comfortable sharing. Leaders can also be informed about the company’s mental health support so they can provide information about resources for more assistance.
Effective leadership also calls for action. When a leader’s words and actions are in sync, followers will have more faith in them and will feel more engaged and committed. Empathy for another person’s circumstance ought to result in kindness and action. Understanding a worker’s difficulties and extending assistance are examples of empathy in action. Understanding others’ points of view and having a constructive discussion together leads to better solutions. Making a fresh suggestion after taking into account a team member’s viewpoints contributes to improved achievement. People may not remember what you said, but they will remember how you made them feel, according to a proverb.
What are the Characteristics of Empathetic Behavior?
Researchers have identified behaviors that enhance and demonstrate empathy. Empathetic people:
- Actively listen more than they speak. An empathetic person listens first and only speaks after hearing what the other person is saying. Empathetic people use active listening skills to gain insight, including Reflecting: “What I’m hearing you say is…” or “It sounds to me like;” Affirming: Smiling, nodding, or brief verbal affirmations like “I see” and “mm-hmm;” Encouraging: “And then?”
- Are vulnerable. Empathetic people share a story of their own about when they encountered a similar situation or problem. This softens the situation and makes them more relatable.
- Don’t make assumptions. Assumptions interfere with their ability to empathize. To be truly empathetic they have to let go of preconceived notions that are not based on true understanding or experience.
- Use their imagination. It’s impossible to have experienced every situation that others share with you. So you need to use your imagination to better understand how the other person is feeling. Fiction books can be a great way to experiment with trying to get into the mind and heart of a character whose experiences are profoundly different from your own.
- Are fully present with others. Empathetic people have a way of making you feel like you’re the only one in the room. When they interact with someone, they give that person the gift of their full attention and respect, which is rare in today’s hyper-distracted world.
- Tune into nonverbal communication. Communication runs deeper than words alone. If you notice someone tensing up, pulling away, or suddenly dodging eye contact, those are important clues that you can use empathy to reach out. Rather than ignoring the emotion, gently — and with kindness — ask them to describe what’s happening to them. This gives people the freedom to share their feelings openly, knowing they won’t be judged or criticized. Letting emotions flow freely can be a gateway to productive problem-solving.
- Pause and are comfortable with silence. To be helpful, we often jump in to finish people’s sentences, offer advice, or interrupt. Empathetic people know how powerful silence can be. They don’t interrupt or talk over other people. They think before they speak.
- Replace advising with asking questions. Instead of offering their opinion, empathetic people ask questions to better understand another person’s perspective.
- Being alive to the suffering of others. Being sensitive to the well-being of others and noticing any change in their behavior is one of the important attributes of an empathetic and compassionate per
- Tolerating personal distress. Distress tolerance is the ability to bear or hold difficult emotions. People who feel overwhelmed by another person’s distress may simply turn away and may not be able to help or take the right action.
- Can Identify the emotions of others (and self). Learning to identify and label what the empathetic person is feeling and naming it can help us better understand their behavior or the message behind the other person’s feelings and words.
- Are conscious of their tone of voice. Because the tone of voice conveys over 38 percent of the nonverbal emotional content of what a person communicates, it is a vital key to empathy. Matching the volume and tone of the person you are talking to and, generally, using a soothing tone to make someone feel heard. However, when a person is communicating outrage, moderating your tone — rather than matching theirs — is more appropriate.
- Intentionally respond rather than reacting. How you resonate with the person you are talking to is critical. Whether or not we’re aware of it, we tend to synchronize emotionally with people. However, the empathetic person must be able to regulate their emotional response, rather than merge with the other person, or react in a way that is not helpful.
Can Empathy Be Taught?
Some research by Emily Weinstein has shown that empathy-based behaviors can be learned. ‘‘Individuals can be taught to ask questions to enhance the understanding that builds a connection between people and helps them to perceive the emotions of others’’. Joanne Izenberg has also found that qualities such as empathy, optimism and resilience.
Ernest J. Wilson III and his colleagues at the University of Southern California conducted a comprehensive study on empathy in organizations. He reports: “For three years my colleagues and I at the University of Southern California’s Annenberg School for Communication and Journalism crisscrossed the U.S. and travelled to other nations asking business leaders what attributes executives must have to succeed in today’s digital, global economy.
W identified five as critical: adaptability, cultural competence (the capacity to think, act, and move across multiple borders), 360-degree thinking (holistic understanding, capable of recognizing patterns of problems and their solutions), intellectual curiosity, and, of course, empathy.”
Wilson says these so-called “soft” attributes constitute a distinctive way of seeing the world. Taken together, they create a kind of “Third Space” that differs sharply from the other two perspectives that have long dominated business thinking: the engineering and traditional MBA perspectives. Wilson goes on to report “Later when we reported the results of our research to other leaders, many said empathy was the most important of the five attributes we had uncovered (though intellectual curiosity and 360-degree thinking were also popular).
Wilson goes on to say “And this enthusiasm for empathy among business leaders crosses borders. Not only entertainment executives in Los Angeles and IT leaders in Manhattan but also PR professionals in Shanghai and digital businessmen and investors meeting in the Jockey Club in Beijing acknowledged the overwhelming importance of empathy. So did start-up founders in Rome and advertising professionals in Paris.”
Today’s organizations require what the New York Times columnist Adam Bryant has described as a “quick and nimble” management culture. This, in turn, requires leaders to let go of focusing so much on themselves; to let go of the “alpha male” role, as Georg Vielmetter of the Hay Group has called it. Then, they are more able to engage with diverse employees, and from a more humble perspective. Vielmetter pointed out that “The time of the alpha male — of the dominant, typically male leader who knows everything, who gives direction to everybody and sets the pace, whom everybody follows because this person is so smart and intelligent and clever-this time is over. We need a new kind of leader who focuses much more on relationships and understands that leadership is not about himself…who knows he needs to listen to other people… be intellectually curious and emotionally open…(and) needs empathy to do the job.”
In a global marketplace where problems are increasingly complex, no one person will ever have all the answers. As Google’s SVP of People Operations, Lazlo Bock, says, “Your end goal is what can we do together to problem-solve. Without empathy and humility, you are unable to learn.” Bock says that empathy is one of the traits he’s looking for in new hires.
In conclusion, empathy fosters productive working relationships and organizational cultures while also promoting productivity. Although empathy may not be a brand-new skill, it has a new level of significance, and a recent study has highlighted how empathy is the leadership capacity that has to be developed and demonstrated both now and in the workplace of the future.