Become a more empathetic leader

Take a moment to remember a time in your working life when a leader empathised with a challenging situation to better understand your needs and guided you through the process and how to tackle it. How did it make you feel and how were you able to work your way through the situation?

Companies with empathetic leaders have more engaged staff and are generally more productive. A recent study by Harvard Business Review found that the top companies in 2015 Global Empathy Index increased in value more than twice as much as those in the bottom 10 on the index and generated 50% more in earnings.

Empathy is a crucial skill that leaders need to harness to make for motivated and engaged employees who are committed to the overall success of their business.

What does empathy look like in the workplace?

Having a workplace where empathy resides, equates to creating a culture in which staff feel appreciated, understood, valued and heard. This is basically what empathy is. When staff experience roadblocks, issues and challenges, empathetic leaders will take the time to actively listen to them and ensure they are given the opportunity to communicate their challenge. When employees feel heard and understood, they feel empowered to figure out the best solution to their problems themselves. They are more accountable. This leads to staff who appreciated and supported and in turn feel engaged and motivated.

Think of the opposite approach. Perhaps think of a time where you had a challenging situation and your leader took the problem away from you and handled it themselves, in an effort to ‘fix it’ for you. This is often the leadership approach with small businesses who may have been one or two people and grow to include more staff. With the best intentions, the original leader/ owner may be used to doing everything themselves and haven’t yet learned the art of delegating and leading with empathy. Taking problems away from staff, providing the solutions for them, in the long run simply leads to staff feeling disempowered and un-motivated.

How to be a more empathetic leader 

Next time someone in your team comes to you with a problem, try to approach it with empathy and help guide them through the process themselves, without taking too much ownership of the ‘issue’. Refrain from suggesting your own solutions to their problem and see if you can take a more passive, yet empathetic and supportive role. Here’s some techniques:

1. Acknowledge their perspective of the situation

The key here is ensuring they are heard and you acknowledge what is communicated. You don’t have to agree with someone’s perspective of a situation, you simply have to hear and acknowledge that their perspective is valid. Judgement has not place when it comes to empathy. Self-awareness is important here too. Be aware your own triggers and how they impact your own judgment. If you have a tendency to be impatient with yourself, you’re more likely to be impatient with the people in your team when they aren’t working fast enough. Being aware of your triggers and being mindful enough to actively take a more neutral approach is helpful on your journey to becoming more empathetic in your leadership approach.

2. Understand and acknowledge how they are feeling about the situation

When you are listening to someone who is facing a significant challenge, try to get an understanding on how they are feeling, what emotions are coming up for them. Again, this is likely to be different to what you would feel in their situation so be aware not to judge them. Ask the question “how are you feeling about this?” and acknowledge their emotions; “I understand you must be feeling upset/ angry/ frustrated”.

3. Practice active listening

Active listening goes hand in hand with the above two points, in fact without it you can’t really be practicing empathy. Active listening, when done properly, results in people feeling more heard and understood.

Here are some ways to be more ‘active’ in your listening;

  • Use your own body language (like nodding/ smiling) to show you are listening and picking up what they are laying down
  • Avoid thinking of what you are going to say when they finish talking
  • Avoid distractions like your phone, other conversations going on around you. Stay 100% focused on the person you are listening to
  • Use small verbal cues to let them know you are hearing what they are saying and to encourage them to continue communicating like “OK”, “uh huh”
  • Wait until they have finished talking and then summarise what they have just said to you to ensure you have understood them properly.

Empathy is a hugely important skill to develop as a leader. Next time someone in your team presents with a challenge they are facing, harness your empathy to help support them through their journey to come up with their own solutions.

If you would like to organise a tailored leadership workshop with me this year or in 2020 get in touch today. I’d love to help!

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