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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