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How to build empathy into everyday leadership

Last updated on 
January 3, 2020

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Most of us recognize empathy as a trait that defines humanity, but in business, it’s the one quality that sets effective leaders apart from ineffective ones. Having – and more importantly, channeling – compassion is crucial for solving a variety of different leadership issues. While empathy is important for managing organizational change, it’s essential for daily people management. Here’s why it matters and how you can build more empathy into your everyday leadership.

The importance of empathy in everyday leadership

The idea that emotional intelligence is integral to success isn’t new. Back in the early 1990s, Daniel Goleman, psychologist and writer for the New York Times, stated that "nearly 90% of the difference between outstanding and average leaders is attributable to emotional factors, not intellectual acumen." In spite of this, there is still shockingly little emphasis on developing emotional attributes like empathy when compared to non-emotional ones, like productivity or resourcefulness.

But leaders overlook empathy at their own peril. People are always your greatest asset, and for that simple reason, the importance of understanding people can never be overstated. For managers and bosses who are all about figures and measurable goals, it can be easy to dismiss the value of empathy; after all, you can’t quantify it, and neither can you directly earn from it. But it’s absolutely paramount to effective everyday leadership.

It’s empathy that has the power to defuse distrustful outlooks that poison company culture. It’s empathy that demonstrates the help and encouragement needed to buoy spirits and inspire positivity when times are hard. It’s empathy that has the capability to unite different people and bring them together, working collectively as a team and striving towards the same shared vision. So, in terms of your everyday leadership, how can you begin building that empathy?

Three key ways to quickly build empathy

When looking at which characteristics empathetic leaders share, there are several traits and approaches that keep cropping up. Three of the most important ones you can begin honing today are:

1. Have a vision and know how to communicate it

No one can succeed without having a vision, and no organization can succeed without having shared goals to work towards. But it isn’t enough to have a clear concept; you must also be able to convey your mission and goals to your employees. Without being able to communicate your vision, how can you expect to inspire people, or allow them to find value and meaning in their roles?

Transparent communication is the basis of understanding – but this must extend to every member of your team, not just the senior staff. Empathic leaders must ensure workers feel safe voicing doubts or concerns without judgment – and building a feedback culture is just one helpful outcome of empathic leadership. But empathy is about understanding the feelings of others, so be sure to check in with your employees to see whether you’re communicating as effectively as you could be. There’s almost always room for improvement!

2. Consider other people’s perceptions, not just your own views

Compassionate leaders understand that there isn’t just one viewpoint to a problem, and rarely is there only one solution, either. To build empathy into your everyday leadership, make it a point to seek out other people’s thoughts and beliefs about topics you have existing opinions on. Try to be accepting of the idea that your choice might not be the best, and open your mind to other perspectives. Crucially, always be aware of decision making bias and check your own views and behavior, often.

Admittedly, this can be easier said than done; our egos are tenacious, often skulking underneath the surface only to reappear when they’re least welcome. But many aspects of empathy can be learned, and when carried out regularly, factoring other people’s viewpoints in can allow you to prioritize understanding, rather than simply getting your own way and “winning”.

3. Listen more and care more

You can’t be an empathic leader without listening and investing in your team. No matter how senior you are, no matter if you single-handedly built your company and employed each and every person in it, an organization isn’t an autocracy… and employees won’t obediently follow you if they receive nothing in return. Take the time to invest in the people who work for you, and don’t just go through the motions with lame-yet-requisite team-building exercises – people can spot these a mile off! People want actual meaningful rewards.

Instead, put time aside to get to know your employees as individuals – scheduled and without distractions. Be curious about their experiences, their aspirations, their development goals and ask them for feedback. Most crucially, listen carefully to their answers. As a rule, remember that for empathic leadership, listening is infinitely more important than talking.

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