“People will forget what you said, people will forget what you did, but people will never forget how you made them feel."
This quote from the renowned poet and civil rights activist Maya Angelou beautifully captures the essence of empathetic leadership—it is the emotional imprint left on others that truly defines our effectiveness and legacy as leaders.
I strongly believe that empathy, a quality that I find crucial in both our personal and professional lives, is more than just a skill—it is a gateway to deeply understanding and connecting with those around us.
In fact, the word “empathy” originates from the Greek words “em” (in) and “pathos” (feeling), which together suggest the idea of feeling into someone else’s experiences.
Literally, empathy means the ability to step into someone else’s shoes, to understand their feelings, and to see things from their perspective.
Empathy in leadership is about understanding and connecting with others' feelings, fostering a supportive environment that cultivates inclusivity, openness, trust, and honest communication, allowing everyone to thrive.
Leaders who demonstrate strong empathy are often better equipped to build and maintain strong and healthy relationships within their teams, and to manage conflicts and misunderstandings.
Interestingly, Deloitte's Global 2022 Gen Z and Millennial Survey revealed significant insights into workplace wellbeing and mental health, particularly in relation to empathetic leadership.
Despite an increased focus on wellbeing and mental health in workplaces, over half of the survey's respondents felt that these programs had not led to meaningful change.
These results point to a need for a shift in focus towards empathetic leadership and genuine interpersonal connections as key drivers of effective mental health and wellbeing initiatives in the workplace.
And, as described in their article “Note to leadership: Empathy isn't a goal. It’s a tool”, organisations and leaders should see empathy as a key tool to build workplaces that are inclusive, emotionally supportive, and based on trust and honesty.
Moreover, according to the 2023 Ernst & Young LLP (EY US) Empathy in Business Survey, “the majority (86%) of employees believe empathetic leadership boosts morale, while 87% of employees say empathy is essential to fostering an inclusive environment”.
This overwhelming consensus highlights that at the heart of a thriving and inclusive workplace lies the transformative power of empathetic leadership.
So, what are essential qualities of leaders who truly empathise?
Empathetic leaders possess a range of qualities that enable them to understand and connect with others on a deeper level.
This is because leading with empathy goes beyond mere understanding - it is about genuinely connecting with team members on an emotional level.
According to Gallup’s CliftonStrengths, “people exceptionally talented in the Empathy theme can sense other people's feelings by imagining themselves in others' lives or situations”.
Gallup’s extensive research shows that if you are highly empathetic, you are more likely to intuitively understand the emotions of others, even when you disagree, and to help them express their feelings. As a consequence, this deep understanding and support would naturally attract people to you.
Some of the main qualities found in empathetic leaders include active listening, emotional awareness, genuine curiosity, openness and vulnerability.
In the book “The Leader’s Guide to Unconscious Bias” by Pamela Fuller and Mark Murphy, the role of curiosity and empathy is explored. Empathy is described as an “interpersonal approach putting yourself in other people’s shoes”; curiosity is explained as an “intellectual approach cultivating connections”.
The book emphasises that curiosity and empathy combined form powerful skills that can help us to challenge our assumptions, expand our thinking, and build stronger connections.
Leaders who truly empathize exhibit not only active listening skills and emotional awareness, but also a deep-seated curiosity that drives them to understand and support their team members more comprehensively.
This curiosity fuels their desire to explore and appreciate the diverse perspectives and feelings within their team.
But, what if you struggle to understand the emotions of others?
Well, understanding other's feelings is not an easy task.
However, improving empathy, especially if you naturally struggle with understanding the emotions of others, is definitely possible.
Empathy is a skill that can be developed with practice and intention.
For example, in order to enhance your empathetic abilities, you could focus on “active listening”.
Active listening involves really listening to others.
Practicing active listening requires fully concentrating, understanding, responding, and then remembering what is being said.
When you actively listen to others, you should pay attention not just to their words, but also to their tone of voice, facial expressions, and body language. This will help you get a better picture of their stories and experiences.
In addition to practice active listening, you could ask open-ended questions. This would encourage others to express themselves more completely by asking questions that require more than a yes or no answer. And, in turn, it could help you understand their perspective better.
Practicing mindfulness and self-reflection can also boost your empathy. This is because being mindful keeps you present and aware, key for understanding others. And, self-reflection allows you to think about what went well and what you could do better next time.
Last but not least, seek feedback whenever possible. Ask for feedback from people you trust about how you come across in interactions. They might provide insights into your empathetic skills and how you can improve.
Ultimately, developing empathy is a journey. It requires patience, effort, and a genuine desire to understand and connect with others on a deeper level.
Does leading with empathy permeates beyond the workplace?
I believe it does.
Empathy in leadership goes beyond the confines of the workplace. It extends into every interaction we have, shaping a world that is more understanding, compassionate, and connected.
When leaders embrace empathy, they not only enhance their teams' performance and satisfaction but also contribute to a culture of mutual respect and shared success.
To conclude, let us remember the words of Brené Brown, a renowned researcher and storyteller, who said, "Empathy has no script. There is no right way or wrong way to do it. It is simply listening, holding space, withholding judgment, emotionally connecting, and communicating that incredibly healing message of 'You are not alone.'"
In the end, leading with empathy is not just about effective leadership; it is about building a world where every interaction is infused with understanding, care, and compassion. It is indeed the heart of effective leadership, a path that leads us to more fulfilling professional and personal lives.