Empathy is the number one skill necessary for leaders, according to Development Dimensions International. Without empathy, our workplaces would always be cold, stressful, and focused on results. We need empathy in conflict, in struggle, in stalemate, and in almost any situation throughout our work days. Opening our minds to understand other peoples’ perceptions and reasonings is how we all learn to grow and create a holistic workplace culture.
While I could emphasize the importance of empathy and list all the wonderful benefits, you get the point. Having knowledge is almost useless, though, if you’re not willing to translate it into action. Empathy is a teachable skill and something we can keep practicing and learning from. Follow along below for some useful advice on incorporating empathy into your leadership style, no matter your rank, position, etc.
Before learning empathy as a leadership skill, you first need to recognize that leaders manage people. Those who focus on results, numbers, and other work are more aligned with the personality type of a boss or manager.
Here’s an example to demonstrate the difference…
If an employee’s performance is dropping, a boss or manager is more likely to threaten to fire the employee if they don’t improve. They’ll use fear as a tactic to demand performance. Leaders, on the other hand, are focused on the human being and will have a conversation with them to find out what could be going on in the employee’s personal or professional life that is affecting their abilities. From there, a leader would find ways to help support the employee in the best way so they feel motivated at work.
Empathy begins with an investment in people. If you show up to work each day only focused on the work itself, empathy will not come easy. The first step to developing empathy for others is believing that people are a company’s biggest investment, and they are where your time and energy should be spent.
Empathy means caring for someone else by being able to put yourself into their shoes. Before you’re able to understand people’s feelings, though, you must know how they feel, which simply comes from asking them. A simple “How are you?” will do.
You may have drawn assumptions or be expecting them to feel a certain way based on the situation, but those thoughts exist only in your brain. You must be careful not to put those assumed feelings on the other person.
Ask them how they’re doing, and then listen. Listen with a clean mental slate clean. Listen with open ears and be ready to absorb what they tell you. Listen to understand, not to respond. And when the time comes for you to reply, take the opportunity to inquire more. Don’t give advice, don’t give opinions (unless asked of you). Simply have the goal of understanding the other person’s perspective.
The above process is called active listening. Only through active listening can you begin to gain empathy and connect with the other person’s experience.
Once you’re invested in your people, and you know how they feel, then you need to know what they need/want and how you can help. There’s no right or wrong way to express empathy, as it depends on the situation and individual involved. However, your actions should always be aimed to support the other person, and no selfish interests should be explored.
Ask yourself: What in my power can I do to help serve and support?
For example, if an employee is struggling with something in their personal life, you could offer that they work from home for a few days. Or, maybe a worker is having trouble understanding a certain system or protocol, you could take time out of your day to have a sit-down tutorial with them for instructions and questions.
An employee or colleague doesn’t have to be in need of help for you to show them empathy. Asking people how they are, how you can help them, or what they need, and then following up their responses with action, are all ways to show people you care on a daily basis.
Empathy comes more naturally to some than others, but it’s a teachable skill that we can all learn and become better from. For more practical ways to implement empathy, see how Knowted’s coaching team can serve you.