Why It Pays to Be an Empathetic Leader

Empathy has always been a critical skill for leaders, but it is taking on a new level of meaning and priority—especially as more employees advocate for a more active approach to work/life balance. Far from a soft approach, empathy also drives positive business results. So, what is empathy, how do you build it, and what are the perks of being an empathetic leader?

What is empathy?

Empathy is the ability to recognize, understand, and share the thoughts and feelings of another person, animal, or even a fictional character. It’s the ability to move beyond your own feelings and thoughts to take in the world around you and understand another perspective. Developing empathy is crucial for establishing relationships and behaving compassionately. It involves 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.

How do you develop or strengthen empathy?

Did you know that a recent study has found that incivility, disrespect, and even a lack of kindness are rising sharply in the workplace? When people are on the receiving end of rudeness or lack of empathy at work, their performance suffers, and they are less likely to help others. It also impacts performance and collaboration, deteriorating customer experiences and increased turnover. People who spend more time with individuals different from themselves tend to adopt a more empathic outlook toward others. Find ways to push outside your “comfort zone” and familiar situations to create situations where you can learn about others, different cultures, and different work styles. Research also finds that reading novels can help foster the ability to put ourselves in the minds of others. Meditation has also been shown to help cultivate brain states that increase empathy and awareness. You don’t have to be an expert in mental health or have a background in counseling in order to increase your empathy. Actively practice considering someone else’s thoughts. This is done through cognitive and emotional empathy, which is simply thinking, “If I were in their position or hearing this information, what would I be thinking or feeling right now? Would this unmotivated me to do more?” Leaders will be most successful not just when they personally consider others but also when they express their concerns and inquire about challenges directly, when they listen to employees’ responses, and when they actively work with management teams to do the same.

Benefits of being an empathetic leader: 

Multiple studies have shown that leading with empathy increases innovation among employees by 50%. Employees who experience empathy from their leaders are 75% more engaged than at companies with little to no empathy. Higher retention rates are also a bonus. Some studies suggest that 57% of Caucasians and 62% of employees of color state that they will not consider leaving a place of employment if there is an atmosphere of empathy and healthy leadership. Employees also feel that valuing and respecting their life circumstances outside of the workplace is vital. This is a huge driving factor for many issues with turnover in companies today. This leads to the consideration of work/life balance. Recent occupational health studies and research out of the Academic Management Journal have shown that when people feel their leaders are more empathetic, 86% say they are able to navigate the demands of their work and life—successfully juggling personal, family, and work obligations.

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