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.”

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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

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Banish imposter syndrome

How Imposter Syndrome Blocks Our Greatness

Imposter syndrome. It’s a hot topic – we’re talking about it on social media, major news outlets are grabbing our attention with thought-provoking headlines, and well-known public figures are sharing their stories with us. It’s no wonder, then, that many, many leaders out there (including myself) – in being the humans that we are – also suffer from this deadly-to-the-soul syndrome.

Exactly what is the Imposter Syndrome, anyway?

It may be simplest to explain what imposter syndrome is by clarifying what it isn’t. We’ve all probably felt tinges of performance anxiety or stage fright before a major presentation at some point. I know I sure have.

Imposter syndrome is much deeper than a few minutes of anxiety ahead of a big event. It’s a feeling that we don’t belong – that even if we’re a part of something, we don’t deserve to be there. Perhaps you can relate to some thoughts common to imposter syndrome:

  • I don’t belong here.
  • Everyone will know I’m faking it.
  • I didn’t earn / don’t deserve this.
  • It’s a matter of time before I’m exposed.
  • I know they’re secretly judging me.

More specifically, the Cambridge Dictionary defines Imposter Syndrome as:

“the feeling that your achievements are not real or that you do not deserve praise or success.”

Banish imposter syndromeHow often do we let the imposter syndrome block our greatness?

It doesn’t take much effort to realize the profound impact imposter syndrome can have upon our life – as a leader and as a human being. Yet, many of us experience it to a certain degree. We may:

  • Second-guess ourselves excessively
  • Focus intently on how others might view us
  • Overemphasize what we “should be” doing (this one’s my favorite J)
  • Downplay (rather than embrace) our achievements
  • Overly fixate on small or insignificant “failures”

In an aptly titled article, I Don’t Deserve to be Here: Presence and the Impostor Syndrome, Amy Cuddy shares the following quote.

“Impostor-ism steals our power and suffocates our presence. If even you don’t believe you should be here, how will you convince anybody else?”

Wow. How’s that for some deep reflection? Deep but true. Why should anyone else believe we deserve to be here if we don’t? Sounds so simple. If only it were easy to get over. But still…

Envision the power you have to transform your own life experience. What if all the self-deprecating thoughts running through your head were replaced by a celebration of you as a being from the sky with a distinct purpose that only you can fulfill? And more importantly…how do you get to that level of awareness and understanding?

Banish that Imposter and say hello to the authentic, precious YOU!

As with any true transformative experience, imposter syndrome isn’t something you can make vanish with the wave of a magic wand (don’t we wish!). Instead, you’ll need to make a commitment – step by positive step – to come into your own presence and to be ever aware of the inner dialogue that’s running through your head.

Here are some simple steps to help you out on this:

1- Consider a socio-cultural component, rather than a worthiness one: Ask if you’ve been conditioned to see yourself as “less than” or never quite “good enough” to belong. An HBR article points out that research indicates in professional settings, insecurity experienced by women and minorities is more a social issue rather than a psychological one.

“While women are constitutionally just as confident as men, a cocktail of conflicting messages and personal feedback tinged with bias — be more assertive but less confrontational, be authentic but less emotional — puts them in circumstances that would make anyone second guess themselves,” assert authors Weber and Petriglieri.

conquer impostor syndrome

2- Practice the power of the present moment. In leadership and in life, practicing awareness has benefits that stretch far beyond what’s happening in your life right now. After all, INSEAD and Harvard did not list Mindfulness as the #3 top leadership trait for nothing ;-).

We’re all aware that the first step in addressing an issue is recognizing it, and that’s where awareness comes in.

How often are we aware of our own thoughts? The next time a disagreeable or stressful situation arises, we can take a quiet moment to center ourselves and to notice our thought patterns – how familiar is this pattern? What shifts do we notice in our bodies or our minds?

New situations may stoke old fears; future sensations of inadequacy might reawaken long-forgotten insecurities. But the more we are aware of our anxieties, the more we communicate about them, and the smarter we are about how they operate, the easier they’ll be to shrug off the next time they pop up.”

Amy Cuddy

3- Put it all in perspective. Very often, we humans become so focused on “me” that we forget all about the greater “we.” While we’re obsessing over what someone else will think of us or wondering how the perceptions others have of us will affect future professional interactions, we are leaving little time to focus on the bigger picture.

Why is it that we don’t consider that other people – yes, even those we would never guess – are also experiencing many of the same thoughts that we are? What do you think the #1 fear of executives worldwide is?

If you guessed being found incompetent, you’re right on target according to at least one survey. We might all find that by taking the focus off ourselves and expanding our conscious awareness to those around us, our authenticity naturally shines.

And, as always, let’s remember not to be hard on ourselves. Like anything else, this is a process of growth. Over time, the deepened understanding we gain of ourselves expands to include others as well. It’s like peeling away the thickened layers of your consciousness to reveal our unique greatness waiting within.

The result? Deeper meaning and greater authenticity in all that we do, which positively influences our relationships (and just about every other area of life) as well.

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