WHY Empathy is Key To Leadership (& How to Practice It)

Empathy. For many of us, that word may be synonymous with sympathy, caring and/or compassion. But it’s a little different than any of those terms – and in leadership it’s key to effectively leading organizational change. And if it sounds like woo-woo, think again…

Regardless of the setting, empathy can be defined as “the ability to recognize, understand, and share the thoughts and feelings” of others. A definition from Psychology Today takes it further, explaining that empathy is about “experiencing another person’s point of view, rather than just one’s own, and enables prosocial or helping behaviors that come from within, rather than being forced.” 

The WHY Behind Practicing Empathy in Leadership

It only makes sense that cultivating empathy serves us well not only in everyday life, but in our professional relationships too. In an HBR article aptly titled “The Secret to Leading Organizational Change is Empathy,” author Patty Sanchez reiterates just how essential empathy is in the leadership world.

Sanchez cites studies on organizational change that demonstrate a widespread agreement amongst leaders on the importance of integrating empathy into communications to lead effective transformation.

The benefits are wide-reaching and impactful: first, leaders can more strongly connect with those in their organization, which can foster a sense of loyalty and encourage a team spirit.

Think about it:

When employees feel valued and understood, they’re much more likely to actually enjoy coming to work every day – and giving it their best. In the long run, the whole organization can enjoy the benefits of greater productivity, improved morale, and yes, even increased profits.

It’s no surprise that this can also induce a ripple effect of positivity that can not only inspire organizational change, but can also help to make it lasting and more meaningful. Those we lead have a deeper understanding of the organization and its goals. Instead of feeling like they’re just another number or cog in the wheel of never-ending change, our teams see their significance and the role they play in the change process.

Another benefit to demonstrating empathy is that in forgetting ourselves just for that moment when we are extending empathy, we are also simultaneously developing a greater sense of connection with ourselves – something many of us who don’t know all we need to do is to think about others – go to great lengths to achieve. Yet, it really is that simple.

What Does Empathy Look Like in the Business World?

Though empathy takes many forms, here are some common examples:

  • A manager understands that a team member is having a personal situation at home and grants him/her the needed time off.
  • Company leaders emphasize a culture of collaboration, understanding and acceptance instead of competition – particularly in challenging times.
  • A team leader expresses genuine interest in and works to encourage better teamwork, where each person feels like a respected, valued member.

When it comes to empathy, think authenticity. It doesn’t have to be an elusive concept – any leader can try practicing it in small doses when the situation calls for it. One simple way to start is by expressing our own vulnerabilities and sharing our weaknesses, where appropriate.

Like the old adage referring to the nature of anything that comes out of our mouths and which goes, “It’s not so much what you say, but how you say it,” in her HBR article, Patti Sanchez puts her own spin on it:

“How information is communicated to employees during a change matters more than what information is communicated.”

Particularly when it comes to organizational change and transformation, empathy plays a crucial role in whether the organization’s plans flourish…or fall flat.

3 Strategies for Integrating Empathy in Leadership

  1. Start With Sincerity.

If ever there was a golden key to expressing empathy effectively, it’s sincerity. When someone understands a leader is coming from a place of authenticity, it becomes a solid foundation. This establishes the trust so vital to a supportive culture – especially during times of organizational change.

Leadership tip: Proactively – and authentically – engage with team members, remembering to weave in personal details that demonstrate sincerity.

  1. Be Transparent.

This is very important when we’re leading change efforts because people are more likely to be actively engaged when they are informed. Transparency can also help everyone navigate through the inevitable discomforts and fears associated with change. It doesn’t mean the organization has to reveal every last detail, but keeping folks informed is likely to translate into deeper, lasting change.

Leadership tip: Talk to team members, get to know their fears – so you can address them openly and of course, with empathy. Hint: all of our fears can be boiled down to one of Maslow’s Hierarchy of needs. In other words, for all of us, when fear raises its uncomfortable head, it’s because we are afraid of not being safe, of not being loveable and/or of not being good enough. This may help narrow down the field as we seek to better understand those with whom we are working.

  1. Include Everyone.

Sometimes people think of organizational change as only involving those in leadership positions or certain high-ranking individuals within the organization. But this couldn’t be further from the truth: to truly lead impactful change, we must work to include every person, on every level of the organization – not just a select few.

Leadership tip: If your organization in the process of transformational change right now, take some time to thoughtfully consider how well leadership is bringing every employee on board. Remember everyone’s favorite radio station: WIIFM (What’s In It For Me?!).  Bearing this in mind will help all of us remember to bring everyone along with our ideas.

Unsurprisingly, Brené Brown also has some motivating words to say on this subject: “Empathy is simply listening, holding space, withholding judgment, emotionally connecting, and communicating that incredibly healing message of you’re not alone.”

Want more out-of-the box thoughts on leadership? Sign up here to receive our complimentary Weekly Bold Move. Your journey to bold, authentic transformation starts right here.

imposter syndrome

The Great Imposter: Is That Really You – or Merely Your Fear?

Truth be told, many successful leaders and entrepreneurs seriously question their abilities. We doubt whether we are as competent as others might think we are.

Quite plainly, we can sometimes feel like phonies and fear that at any time, our “fraud” will be called out – and we will be labeled as impostors for the world to shame.

Experiencing this “impostor syndrome” is not uncommon. Sheryl Sandberg, writing in her infamous book, Lean In: Women, Work, and the Will to Lead, describes feeling like an imposter.

“Every time I was called on in class, I was sure that I was about to embarrass myself. Every time I took a test, I was sure that it had gone badly. And every time I didn’t embarrass myself — or even excelled — I believed that I had fooled everyone yet again.”

Many of us are probably sighing with relief at Sandberg’s confession, thinking finally someone admits to feeling the same way that we do.

Overcompensating to Deal with Imposter Syndrome

Living with the impostor syndrome is like a dog chasing its tail – doing more, preparing more, all to ensure that no one discovers your secret: that you think you’re a fraud.

The term imposter syndrome was first coined in the 1970s by a pair of psychologists, Suzanna Imes and Pauline Rose Clance. At first, it was applied to mainly to high-achieving women. But over the years, it has been recognized as a syndrome that many others experience.

Some of the common signs, among others are:

  • Doubting ourselves
  • Sabotaging our success
  • Claiming our success is due to external factors or luck
  • Overachieving

Research has suggested that entrepreneurs are more likely to display symptoms of the impostor role, since they are using their dreams/fantasy of a business to fuel their ideas into reality. (The Imposter Syndrome: Developmental and Societal Issues; Manfred F.R. Kets de Vres)

“It is because we are all imposters that we endure each other.”— Philosopher Emil Cioran

What Are Supposed Imposters Like on the Inside?

Although Impostor Syndrome isn’t acknowledged in the Diagnostic and Statistical Manual of Mental Disorders, it does exist. It’s something that people don’t talk about.

“Part of the experience is that they’re afraid they’re going to be found out,” says Imes.

Those of us with impostor syndrome oftentimes were raised in families that placed an extreme value on achievement, according to Imes. “Self-worth becomes contingent on achieving.”

In our quest to be deeply seen and heard, we might fantasize about our parents being rich, being something other than what we actually are. Some of us, however, never learn to ‘tone down’ our grand self-images or our optimal parental images. We want to be treated according to our ideals – not according to our real achievements.

Those of us with the imposter syndrome may relate to any of the following:

  • Extremely sensitive to rejection
  • Afraid of social failure
  • Exhibit perfectionistic attitudes towards ourselves
  • Believe success is attributed to luck, likeability or attractiveness

We can believe we have fooled everyone and are not as competent or intelligent as others think we are.

It is believed 70% of people will have at least one episode of the imposter syndrome in their lives.

Conquer Imposter Syndrome by Recognizing Your Feelings

We can learn to overcome our feelings of being an imposter by:

  • Sharing feelings with mentors who can offer encouragement and support
  • Acknowledging our expertise
  • Recognizing all the things we are good at
  • Always remembering no one can meet all criteria of perfection – “perfect” is a matter of perception

“Nothing can harm you as much as your own thoughts unguarded.” ~ Buddha

Beginning right now, believe in yourself – and empower yourself to lead authentically, with confidence. Sign up for our Bold Moves of the Week, always free & delivered fresh to your inbox each week.

Laughter in Leadership: Time to Get Serious About It

When’s the last time you had a good laugh at work?

If you can’t remember, then you’re seriously not alone.

We’re in in the midst of a laughter drought, according to MBA candidate Eric Tsytsylin.

Data backs that up:

While babies laugh about 400 times each day,

adults over 35 years of age laugh only about 15 times each day.

At the workplace, there’s a lot less laughter.

Gallup research notes people laugh a great deal less during the week than weekends.

We Need Laughter for a Happy Life

Laughter is indeed serious business for living a happy life. Adding in lightness, fun and humor to our work and life adds connection and a new perspective.

Research from Northwestern University discovered laughing boosts your mood and can promote innovation and beneficial brainstorming, help employees work better and increase overall satisfaction on the job.

So, let’s start laughing at the workplace!

“If you can learn the humor of a people and really control it, you know that you are also in control of nearly everything else.”

-Peter McGraw (author of The Humor Code and a marketing and psychology professor at the University of Colorado Boulder) and Joel Warner (a journalist) citing anthropologist Edward Hall

Laughter: The Best Medicine

Seems as we grow up, we take life a lot too seriously. But why? A good, deep, belly laugh, when your lips nearly crack from smiling and your eyes tear up, is like a heaping spoonful of wonderfully natural medicine.

Loma Linda University Associate Professor Dr. Lee Berk has researched laughing for nearly 30 years. A Time article by Markham Heid highlights what Berk has discovered about laughter.

It:

  • triggers production of feel-good chemicals in our bodies
  • inhibits the release of stress hormones
  • works to lower inflammation
  • improves blood flow

In an HBR article, Leading With Humor, Alison Beard writes that laughter in the workplace:

  • relieves boredom and stress
  • encourages creativity and working together

Here’s something of interest: laughter also increased employee productivity by 10% after watching a comedy clip versus their counterparts who did not.

The Magic of Humor Has Wide-Reaching Benefits

In The New York Times, Senior Editor Corinne Purtill cited a striking example of just how much infusing laughter into a presentation can improve the audience’s attention – and retention.

Behavioral scientist Jennifer Aaker wanted to see how adding humor to an otherwise ho-hum lecture would affect the audience.

It proved to be a memorable presentation.

She asked media and strategy consultant Naomi Bagdonas to give a guest lecture. The audience was unaware that in addition to her consulting credentials and working on her MBA, Bagdonas did evening gigs performing improv at comedy clubs.

While her lecture explained the use of stories in conjunction with data, neurochemistry, and factor analysis – bland, humdrum stuff by most people’s standards – Bagdonas’ comic delivery had students laughing to tears – and remarkably recalling her points more accurately than most other guest speakers.

As a result, Aaker and Bagdonas instruct a course at Stanford, “Humor: Serious Business.” The two teach that it’s not about joke telling – it’s about cultivating joy. And while one must be careful in dispensing humor so as not to be offensive to others, an authentic leader who expresses empathy and emphasizes inclusion can also add humor to inspire trust in the workplace.

In her HBR article, Beard noted a few highlights of infusing humor:

  • Be honest and authentic in your humor
  • Don’t be afraid to laugh at yourself – it indicates things are alright
  • Laughter puts people at ease, so go ahead and poke fun about the things everyone is stressed over

And in today’s tumultuous world, a little humor can go a long way.

I always give 100% at Work: 10% Monday, 23% Tuesday, 40% Wednesday, 22% Thursday, and 5% Friday.​

-Anonymous

Let Go. Laugh a Little. And Then Some More 🙂

Writing in Forbes, Jacquelyn Smith offers up why humor can be the key to success at the workplace:

  • It puts people at ease
  • It can reduce stress
  • Helps spur creative thinking
  • Aids in building trust
  • Can boost morale and lessen employee turnover

She notes, however, that not all workplaces encourage humor. International business speaker Michael Kerr writes that it depends on the atmosphere of the office. Less structured environments, where employees can be themselves, tend to express their humor more openly.

Some employees, Kerr explains, purposely tone down their humor, to be taken more seriously. “Yet, this can backfire as people who take themselves overly seriously are often, ironically, taken less seriously by the people around them,” states Kerr.

Humor Has the Power to Add Lightness to Any Workplace

Recently the national media had fun with the “cat” attorney Rod Ponton, who signed into Zoom for a court hearing. Because of a Zoom filter, however, the judge wasn’t looking at Ponton, but instead, a talking white kitten.

Ponton attempted to remove the cat photo. So did his assistant. “I don’t know how to remove it,” he admits in the video. “I’ve got my assistant here and she’s trying to remove it but uh…I’m prepared to go forward with it. I’m here live. I’m not a cat.”

About 20 seconds later, the kitten transformed into Ponton, who admits he – and many others – had a good laugh about it.

A little humor adds some lightness to our lives, when we’re so pandemic weary, longing for our old routines, and uncertain of what the future holds.

And for authentic leaders, incorporating humor into the workplace is like putting the cherry on the chocolate ice cream sundae.

“Sometimes I spend the whole meeting wondering how they got the big meeting table through the door.” – Greeting Card Poet

Hope that got you laughing!

Want to expand your leadership experience with simple, thought-provoking inspiration? Sign up here to access my free Weekly Bold Moves.

 

Letting Go

Surrender: The Secret to a Great Leader

Great leadership has nothing to do with making everyone do what you say. It’s not about controlling anyone or anything.

Great leadership is about letting go – surrendering to what is.

“To lead people, walk beside them … As for the best leaders, the people do not notice their existence. The next best, the people honor and praise. The next, the people fear; and the next, the people hate … When the best leader’s work is done the people say, ‘We did it ourselves!'”— Lao-Tzu

Misconceptions About Great Leaders

In some cultures, people think leadership is about commanding, issuing orders, and making everything fall into place.

Or else.

That may have been effective in the 1950’s or in the modern-day military, but great leaders in organizations today are those who know that letting go fosters innovation, collaboration, and a sense of belonging, being a valued member of a team.

letting go

It remains prevalent today where control is viewed as strength while surrender is viewed as weakness. Yet as Mike Myatt points out in Forbes, “Society has labeled surrender as a sign of leadership weakness, when in fact, it can be among the greatest of leadership strengths.”

Myatt makes it clear: Surrendering isn’t about giving up.

It’s about letting go – getting out of the way – and by doing so, allowing others to be influenced by your example.


As a result, the walk-on-eggshells atmosphere of a controlling leader, where employees feel squashed by micromanagement and worn from being treated as misbehaved children is replaced by a positive and collaborative environment. Employees feel valued, their confidence buoyed – and innovation, initiative, and talents shine.

Avoid Scripting the Duties of Your Employees

Some leaders – who, in fact, are mere managers in this case – choose to lead by making their employees follow prescribed rules and regulations…much like an instruction sheet for putting together a gas grill, for example.

For most people trying to follow well intended step-by-step directions, the project falls short: instead of a sense of satisfaction from a completed job, frustration, annoyance, and irritation is the result.

Many employees feel that way about their jobs in the workplace.

Leaders may have good intentions by implementing flow charts, rules and directives and censoring any questions to their orders.
Yet all that results in is poor performance, high employee turnover and poor customer service.

A shining testament to letting go as a leader can be found in Jim Bush, who transformed American Express’ call centers. In Harvard Business Review, Rob Markey writes of Bush’s novel approach.  His was unique, as American Express already had a high level of service for its call centers – he wasn’t hired to ‘fix’ anything.

But Bush could see even better. Like many companies, American Express had specific guidelines for call center employees, always with a watchful eye on reducing call time but increasing customer satisfaction. Yet turnover was high and employee morale low.

Bush decided that American Express needed to build relationships with their call customers.  Rather than feel like they were talking to a computer, Bush wanted callers to feel as if they were talking to a human being – one that cared.

Impactful Leaders Lead by Letting Go

Bush led – by letting go. How?

He:

  • Tossed the call center scripted guidelines.
  • Stopped limiting the time – allowing customers to speak – as human beings talking to real human beings.
  • Modified the hiring practices, choosing employees with hospitality and retail experience.
  • Renamed the job titles: switching from customer service reps to customer care professionals.
  • Allowed reps to gauge their own time for each call.

The results? Customers were more approving, employee turnover dropped, and AmEx continues to win the J.D. Power customer service award in credit cards.

Great Leaders Don’t Need to Seek the Spotlight. They Naturally Shine

Letting GoSociety, as Mike Myatt points out in Forbes, is captivated by celebrities.

As a result, “the practice of servant leadership is antithetical to our human nature and our current culture.”

Personal success, he writes, is linked with how much we help others – rather than what we do for ourselves.

What’s holding you back from becoming a great leader, asks Myatt? 

YOU.

Effective leadership isn’t about control. It’s not about power.

“Lead from the back and let others believe they are in front”. – Nelson Mandela

Get thought-provoking leadership strategies and helpful tips to empower you to lead BOLDLY – sign up for our Bold Moves of the Week, always free & delivered fresh to your inbox each week.

Self-Compassion is What Makes Good Leaders the Greatest

Smart people tend to want to prove themselves by accomplishing a lot within a short period of time.

In holding our feet to the fire, we also tend to be extremely hard on ourselves. For many, there seems to be a deeply rooted belief that in order to be a highly successful leader, continual stress comes with the territory.

We tell ourselves this is how we “get good.” And, admittedly, it may have worked for a time. But it becomes a cycle of never enough and of never-ending stress.

And it’s not a long-term strategy. How could it be? Stress, fatigue, burn-out and plain ole discouragement from our stinkin’ thinkin’ would take its toll on anyone – at best, slowing us down and, at worst, setting the stage for longer-term unproductive struggles in our work and personal relationships.

If left unchecked, it negatively affects performance in the workplace. And it doesn’t have to be like this.

Self-Compassion is the Foundation of Leadership

“Try to feel compassion for how difficult it is to be an imperfect human being in this extremely competitive society of ours…
We’re told that no matter how hard we try, our best just isn’t good enough.”

-Kristin Neff

Our workplaces have become full of discontentment. According to Gregory Stebbins and co-author Marcos Cajina, writing in the Huffington Post, a 2013 Gallup poll revealed shocking results:

-87% of capable employees reported being disengaged

We need to let go of the old ways of leadership. And that means, say the authors, opening the door to self-compassion.

Compassion Makes Leaders More Resilient

Many professionals are experiencing unprecedented record stress levels, brought on not only by the global pandemic and its far-reaching effects, but the political unrest in the world as well.

We’re a world hungry for compassion.

Writing in Forbes, Rebecca Zucker relates her conversation with Kristin Neff, author of Self-Compassion: The Proven Power of Being Kind to Yourself and also The Mindful Self-Compassion Workbook, noting how vital compassion is during these tumultuous times. While offering it to others, we must also offer it to ourselves. Zucker notes:

“…self-compassion is a muscle we can build that makes us more resilient over time and allows us to be more optimistic.”

According to Neff, self-compassion consists of three components:

  1. Become mindful and aware of your suffering and acknowledge it.
  2. Be kind to yourself, showing the same care and concern you would give to a child who is suffering.
  3. Realize and remind yourself that you are part of this large community that is humanity. Oftentimes, we feel as if we are suffering all alone when, in fact, we are one among many.

Neff states that when we are aware of our suffering, it is then that we should do something kind for ourselves, like taking a day off, indulging in a nap, or even a long walk. And it’s also good to have support from others.

There is often a cultural roadblock to self-compassion, that somehow being soft with ourselves means we won’t get ahead or be successful. But, it’s actually the opposite that is most often true:

Self-encouragement is shown to be a more effective motivator than self-criticism.

There are gender barriers as well to self-compassion. Women, socialized to care for others, often believe self-compassion is a selfish act, while men can view it as a display of weakness.

Self-Esteem or Self-Compassion?

There is a difference. Writing in Harvard Business Review, Serena Chen notes self-esteem generally involves judging one’s self in comparison to others. Self-compassion has no judgement involved:  it creates a sense of wellbeing.

Kristin Neff digs deeper. Self-esteem is how we judge ourselves positively, how much we value ourselves in comparison with those around us. Self-compassion, meanwhile, is how we relate to ourselves. it shows the interconnection with other humans, instead of a separateness.

As a result, Neff states, with self-compassion:

  • We don’t have to feel better than other people to feel good about ourselves.
  • We don’t need others to feel good about ourselves.

Self-compassion shares many of the same benefits as self-esteem, and though it may not seem so at first, helps us to ultimately focus on a “we” rather than a “me” mentality – as we begin to sense our interconnectedness with all others.

Self-Compassion: A Solid Foundation for Authentic Leaders

self-compassionCarol Dweck, psychology professor at Stanford University, states self-compassion supports what she calls a ‘growth mindset.”

Those with a growth mindset:

-view personal abilities and traits as changeable, see potential for growth and are more likely to maintain positive and optimistic outlooks.

Those with a fixed mindset:

see personal abilities, including their own, as set in stone, believing people will be the same five years from now.

In her research, those who were encouraged to have compassion for themselves in situations where they felt they did wrong reported being more motivated to make amends and not repeat the same error.

Most importantly for leaders, a self-compassion mindset spreads to others. Having compassion for oneself in turn encourages compassion for others. All the characteristics of compassion, like non-judgement and genuine caring, are absorbed by others.

Chen cites research by Jia Wei Zhang that shows that leaders who take on a growth mindset – who believe that change IS possible – tend to notice changes in employees’ performances and intervene to give feedback for improvement.

Employees, in turn, can discern this mindset in their leader, and as a result, are more likely to adopt growth mindsets, too. Truly, this is leading by setting a good example.

Cultivating Self-Compassion is a Skill

Like anything, developing self-compassion it is a skill that needs practice. Chen identifies a psychologist’s checklist for self-compassion: Ask:

Am I:

  1. being kind to myself?
  2. aware that everyone has shortcomings and makes mistakes?
  3. keeping uncomfortable feelings in their proper light?

An easier method, Chen also advises, could be: write yourself a letter in the third person – write to yourself as if you were writing to a dear friend in need of compassion. What would you say to him/her?  What tone would you use?  How would you like this dear friend to see him/herself?

“A good leader leads the people from above them. A great leader leads the people from within them.” M.D. Arnold

Inspire your day and deepen your leadership experience with simple tips & strategies. Sign up here to access my free Weekly Bold Moves, delivered fresh to your inbox every Tuesday.