Is empathy the most important leadership skill? Recently there have been a whole host of studies, surveys, articles, and blogs suggesting that it is. Is empathy just the latest soft skill to become the clickbait that business bloggers use to capitalize on shiny object syndrome? Or, is there something more to it than that? What is empathy? How do we know it when we see it? How does empathy benefit individual leaders and the organizations they work for? Are there any downsides to focusing on the importance of empathy? Is empathy something you’re born with or can it be learned and developed? The description of the ideal corporate leader has changed a lot in recent years. Employers aren’t looking for a “wolf of Wall Street” type from the 1980s. Employers don’t want the hip, young, disrupter in a hoodie as they did during the dot.com boom. Over the past decade, data has backed up the idea that self-awareness and empathy don’t just make a workplace nicer but better at business as well.

What Is Empathy?

It’s important to define what empathy is, and more importantly, what we mean when we talk about empathy in the workplace. In general, empathy describes a person’s ability to understand and relate to someone else’s ideas, feelings, experiences, and behaviors. People with high levels of empathy excel at reading situations from the perspective of others and interacting in ways that show compassion. In the workplace, empathy helps teams develop internal connections that lead to productive relationships and peak performance. Empathy is often confused with sympathy, which refers to feeling pity for others without understanding their perspective.

 

There are three distinct types of empathy. It’s worth knowing what they are and how they differ from one another.

  • Affective Empathy refers to understanding another’s emotions and responding appropriately.
  • Somatic Empathy is when you experience a physical reaction. A good example would be blushing on someone else’s behalf when something embarrassing happens to them.
  • Cognitive Empathy occurs when you think about another person’s situation and reach an understanding of how they must be feeling or why they’re behaving as they are.

Experiencing empathy helps to build social connections. In a workplace setting, empathy can lead to productive behaviors like picking up the slack for someone who is under the weather or having a rough day.

Does Empathy Make a Difference?

A recent study by the non-profit organization Catalyst found some surprising statistics related to empathy in the workplace.

Respondents indicated that they are more innovative and more engaged when their workplace has a high level of empathy.

How Can You Increase Empathy in the Workplace?

Empathy is something that we’re all born with. A study by researchers at Lund University found that children can demonstrate empathy at an early age and that they’re most likely to do so in the presence of an engaged adult. A University of Virginia study shows that people’s brains respond to threats to their friends in the same way they respond to threats to themselves. So, we all have the capacity for empathy. And, we all respond with empathy to people we feel close to. But, as we all see in the day-to-day operation of our organizations, not everybody brings the same level of empathy to the office.

Individuals Can Emphasize Empathy

If an individual wants to use and promote empathy within their team at work, there are some easy-to-follow guidelines. Taking the initiative to be a source of empathy and a role model for coworkers will not only increase that individual’s leadership presence but also introduce the benefits of empathy within the group.

To be a more empathetic leader:

  1. Keep a close eye on burnout: Managers who use empathy to spot burnout and intervene before a coworker reaches the breaking point are helping to overcome one of the biggest problems in the workplace today.
  2. Be sensitive to personal problems: A good leader knows that coworkers sometimes experience problems in their personal life that they can’t shut out when they clock in. Supporting team members through challenges is the mark of a true leader and a clear example of empathetic leadership.
  3. Be sincerely interested in others: Managers who know what the individuals on their team are working for and working toward creating cultures where employees feel appreciated. This leads to higher engagement and better performance.
  4. Show compassion: There’s a difference between being empathetic and being a pushover. An empathetic leader understands the difference and demonstrates that understanding in the decisions they make.

Organizations Can Encourage Empathy

It takes time and effort to practice empathy. If your organization doesn’t value empathy, it can make individuals feel like they’re taking a risk by choosing the act with empathy. Organizations that want to enjoy the benefits of an empathetic culture need to do more than just pay lip service. They need to show some initiative in promoting empathy and recognizing individual efforts. To increase empathy across an organization:

  1. Talk about empathy: When senior leaders communicate the importance of empathy to leaders and managers, it puts them on notice that empathy matters and gives them permission to show compassion. Leaders should make sure everyone knows the long-term benefits of empathy and that they understand the value leadership places on them.
  2. Teach skills: Empathy begins with understanding and understanding usually begins with listening. If you want your team or department to become more empathetic, you need to coach, mentor, and develop the kinds of listening and communication skills that make empathy in the workplace possible.
  3. Cultivate compassion: Through recognition and rewards, organizations can highlight good examples of empathy and demonstrate their commitment to supporting leaders and managers who lead the charge.

What Are the Benefits That Organizations Can Expect from Empathy?

Does empathy really contribute to positive outcomes in the workplace? The past few years have been unlike anything the American workforce has experienced before. Through all of the disruption and change, burnout and other challenges have become even bigger concerns than they were previously. Survey data supports the idea that empathy is an effective antidote.

Innovation

When leaders create a more empathetic environment, the people on their teams report that they feel more empowered to be innovative and more comfortable innovating. There was a positive effect on innovation regardless of whether the workers believed the source of empathy to be their direct supervisors or the organization’s senior leadership.

Employee Engagement

Out of nearly 900 people who were surveyed, there was a difference of more than 40 percentage points between employees who feel engaged in low empathy work environments and those who feel engaged at high empathy organizations.

Employee Retention

When workers feel that their circumstances are respected and their contributions are valued, they stay with an organization. Around 60% of women surveyed said they were unlikely to leave their company when they reported high levels of empathy. Compare that to less than 30% of women who said they were likely to stay at companies with low empathy.

Work-Life Balance

86% of employees who work for empathetic leaders say that they can balance the competing demands of their work life and their personal life. Less than 60% of employees with low empathy leaders felt the same way.

Cooperation

When empathy is a factor in decision-making, it leads to increased cooperation within teams. Some studies suggest that the impact of empathy increases over time. In a sense, empathy fosters more empathy.

Mental Health

Workers self-report benefits to overall mental health when they work for a leader who demonstrates empathy.

Are There Any Downsides to Empathy in the Workplace?

Organizations of every size and across every industry have been working hard to cultivate cultures of empathy. They’ve been placing an emphasis on empathy in their hiring decisions. They’ve been investing in empathy through professional development.

The results of these initiatives have been overwhelmingly positive. Still, as with almost anything in professional life, there can be too much of a good thing. Or, perhaps a better way to put it is that there are potential pitfalls that come with promoting empathy. It’s important to know what they are and how to avoid them to maximize the benefits of empathy in your organization. Paul Bloom of Yale University has argued some potential problems arise from an organizational emphasis on empathy.

Judgment

Empathy can lead to poor decision-making in a business environment. Sometimes what’s right for the business isn’t the same thing as what’s best for the individuals on the teams the business is built on. Leaders have to balance their ability to understand other people’s feelings with their responsibility to the organization.

Time and Energy

Leading with empathy isn’t always easy. It can demand investments of time and energy from leaders, especially emotional energy. If organizations aren’t careful, this can lead to emotional burnout within the management ranks. When factors like the tension between business imperatives and empathetic decisions are present, it can compound emotional burnout problems.

Bias

As the University of Virginia study we mentioned above suggests, people naturally feel more empathy for people they know and like. In practical terms, that threatens to turn into biased decision-making. Organizations need to make sure that empathy doesn’t become a pathway to favoritism.

Becoming More Empathetic

Empathy is indeed an inherent trait. But it’s also true that women tend to be more empathetic than men. Maybe empathy comes naturally to you. Maybe it’s something you have to work on constantly. Maybe it’s something you haven’t even considered until you read this article. The good news is that genetics only accounts for about 10% of the variation in empathy levels between average adults. The rest of the variation comes from our lived experiences and learned behaviors. That means the things we do or don’t do can impact our ability to demonstrate empathy. Here are some things you can do to enhance your empathy skills.

Listening

Making an effort to listen to employees pays off. When you listen to their ideas about work topics, you get the benefit of their insight and the secondary benefit of making them feel engaged and appreciated. When you make time to listen to personal issues, you help them work through them and get their head back in the game.

Get to Know People

You might think that getting to know people on a personal level will make your job as a leader harder. Maybe you’ll be tempted to give in to sympathy when you have to give them negative feedback. Or, maybe you’ll get insights into what makes them tick, how to motivate them, and how to tell when they’re having a tough time.

Flip the Script

Before you make decisions about what to do, put yourself in the other person’s place. Let your understanding of their emotions, their actions, and their ideas inform your decision. Look for ways to identify solutions that do the most good for the largest number of people.

Invest in Yourself

If you really need help developing empathy or just place a premium on making it a part of your leadership style, you can’t go wrong with a structured course or workshop led by an expert.

Empathy is a Mindset and a Method for Masters of Modern Management

Express Pros Training created the Modern Management Program to help leaders and managers at every level of an organization develop the skills they need to make more of an impact. Visit our website to explore all of the resources that are available from the three tiers of our program. If you have questions about where to begin or what’s right for you, feel free to give us a call. We’ll help you put together a plan to take control of your personal journey to empathetic leadership.