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Creating Empathy at Work

Photo by Christina @ wocintechchat.com on Unsplash

With nearly half of American adults worried about their mental health during the COVID-19 pandemic, the emotional intelligence of leaders within the workplace is more important now than ever.

Data released by KFF in late April shows that more than 40% of adults have lost a job in their households due to the pandemic. Just under 30% report having trouble paying bills since the pandemic began.

Clearly, these are stressful times.

Have leaders stepped up? Can they?

Not All Leaders Are Emotionally Intelligent Leaders

Social isolation stresses. Our worlds have shrunken. We’re working from home. Our kids are remote-learning. The technology isn’t there yet. Neither is a way back to normalcy.

We’ll be wearing face masks in public for a long time.

Although it feels like years ago, we’re just a few months removed from the days before face masks and case counts and social distancing.

But, emotional intelligence has gotten a lot more important, very quickly.

What Is Emotional Intelligence?

Sometimes called EQ — like intellectual intelligence is called IQ — emotional intelligence comes with a lot of definitions of what it is and what it isn’t. EQ most often gets defined as empathy, intuition, those softer skills, people skills. Sometimes, people explain it as being right-brained instead of left-brained.

Many agree that EQ becomes more important as we progress through our careers, when we start leading people more than leading projects. While intellectual and technical intelligence often save the day when we’re managing a project, it’s emotional intelligence that leaders need to build trust with others, loyalty within their teams, and that rallying drive that carries large initiatives across the finish line.

EQ-It’s Even More Important Now

It’s not like emotional intelligence wasn’t important in our bosses before. In June 2019, Accenture was already researching ‘whole-brain’ leadership, comparing left-brain leadership skills — like critical thinking, data analysis, and technical skills — with right-brain leadership skills — like empathy and intuition.

Accenture interviewed 200 C-suite executives from the US and Europe. 65% cited those right-brain skills as their weak point. Further, while just 8% of executives claimed they used a whole-brain approach to leadership, much more — 82% — said they planned to adopt a leadership style that embraced both ‘halves’ of the brain in the next three years, starting from June 2019.

Turns out they didn’t have three years. They had less than one.

Where Does EQ Come From?

Photo by Icons8 Team on Unsplash

We’ve all had that one boss — the one who’s infinitely more focused on the task than the people. Sometimes, that’s great. During this generational moment, this global pause? Not so much.

We need empathy from our leaders now.

A 2018 study by Cambridge University and 23andMe studied empathy, at a genetic level, across 46,000 people. Their findings?

  • Empathy is hard-wired, at least a little. (10% of differences in empathy in people could be explained by their DNA.)
  • Women generally have more empathy than men. (…although this had nothing to do with genetic make-up and was likely due to the influence of prenatal hormones and socialization.)
  • Low empathy leads to a higher risk of autism.

While socialization and other non-biological factors influence a person’s ability to empathize with people around them, empathy comes easier to some than others.

It’s in their wiring.

How Do We Get Empathy to the Leaders Who Need It?

During the pandemic, stressed employees need some empathy. So do their bosses. Research has shown that empathy doesn’t come easily to everyone, especially those leaders who just aren’t wired that way. What can we do?

1. Allow Empathy to Rise from the Murk

Sometimes bosses have empathy, and it’s just buried under piles of stress, miscommunication, and — perhaps — an apathetic grandboss a level or two up. Empathy — emotional intelligence — can ‘die on the vine’ if even the most empathetic bosses don’t feel supported. Stress dulls empathy. After all, it’s hard to focus on others’ emotional needs when we ourselves aren’t feeling supported.

2. Create EQ Skills in Those Who Lack Them

Some people just don’t have a high innate amount of emotional intelligence, buried or otherwise. Maybe it hasn’t been needed in their careers, or their technical skills compensated for their missing EQ. Our workplaces need that emotional intelligence now.

A book or a webinar probably won’t rewire someone so that they will instantly be able to sit with a coworker or direct report and empathize. It’s going to take more — likely a combination of self-reflection, self-assessment, and mentoring from other leaders. Learning empathy takes commitment and time.

That’s not a popular mantra in a business environment when the ROI is hard to calculate. But we are talking about rewiring someone’s brain.

The Importance of Emotional Intelligence in Our Leaders

We’re living through a moment that will define today’s generations. While we still have work to do, we have to remember to support each one of us responsible for doing it — leaders and non-leaders alike.

We all need to get a bit of empathy right now. Even those who have a hard time delivering it.

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Ryan W Owen

Ryan W Owen

Writer / Photographer / Linguist / MBA