A survey of current leadership theories and management studies reflects a steady shift in thinking toward the idea that managers need to expand their capacity for building and maintaining relationships in the workplace. Successful leaders in today’s global economy are required to collaborate across organizational and cultural boundaries and to build consensus and commitment among groups with different perspectives and values. With the shift to a more people-oriented managerial work style, greater emphasis is being placed on the quality of empathy as a fundamental element of leadership.
Empathy is the capacity to understand or feel what another person is experiencing from the other person’s frame of reference. Empathic people are able to discern what it feels like to stand in another’s shoes and to understand how another’s feelings can affect their behavior, motivation and needs. Empathic leaders are aware of how their employees’ feelings can impact their perception, regardless of whether they agree with or can relate to those feelings. Leaders who feel empathy understand what their employees are experiencing and can demonstrate their understanding by listening and responding in nonjudgmental ways.
There is evidence to support current views that managers who display empathy towards their employees are more successful. The Center for Creative Leadership conducted a study (see Empathy in the Workplace, A Tool for Effective Leadership) analyzing data from 6,731 managers in 38 countries. A key finding of the study showed a positive correlation between empathy and job performance. Managers who were rated by their direct reports as showing more empathy received consistently higher job performance ratings.
Simon Sinek, author of Leaders Eat Last: Why Some Teams Pull Together and Others Don’t, says that empathy is the most important instrument in a leader’s toolbox. Sinek believes that putting the well-being of others first has a compounding and reciprocal effect in workplace relationships, giving managers the capacity to enlist employees in a shared vision by allowing them to achieve their full potential.
Colleen Kettenhofen, an award-winning motivational speaker and corporate trainer, believes that empathy is a critical skill for effective leadership for one important reason – trust. Without trust, employees tend to guard their emotions and hold back on their ideas and participation because they don’t feel their viewpoint is understood or regarded. When employees believe their managers will take their feelings into consideration and understand their perspective, they are more likely to trust that their managers want them to succeed, which can strengthen working relationships, increase collaboration and improve productivity.
Some people are naturally empathic and have an advantage over their peers who have difficulty expressing empathy. Many leaders fall in the middle and can demonstrate empathy occasionally but not consistently. Fortunately, empathy is not a fixed trait and can be developed. Leaders can develop and enhance their empathy skills through coaching, training and other developmental opportunities and initiatives. Organizations can encourage a more empathetic workplace and help managers improve their empathy skills in a number of ways, including:
- Incorporating empathy into the organizational culture from the top down by demonstrating empathic leadership and highlighting the importance of managers showing empathy for their employees. Organizations can establish the values of caring, understanding and developing others as desirable leadership traits, and emphasize that giving time and attention to their employees can enhance not only employee performance but also leadership effectiveness.
- Helping managers develop good listening skills through training and coaching. To understand others and sense what they are feeling, managers must be good listeners, letting employees know they are being heard and that their concerns and problems are understood. Managers need to develop active listening skills, including the ability to reflect the feelings being expressed, read nonverbal cues, withhold judgment, clarify misunderstandings and summarize the conversation. Listening to employees makes them feel respected, builds trust and strengthens working relationships.
- Including the topic of empathy in management training programs, and encouraging managers to take into account the experience and perspective of their employees when they are resolving issues, managing conflict and leading their teams toward greater innovation and higher productivity.
As more organizations recognize that effective leadership requires the ability to build and maintain successful relationships, executives and business owners will be placing greater value on empathy as a leadership skill.