When we think about effective leadership, often we think in terms of hard skills. Are leaders good at what they do? Do they have the abilities required to meet their targets and achieve at a higher level? But like most things in the past few weeks, the pandemic has changed the way we think about essential leadership qualities. More often then not, it’s a leader’s soft skills, not their hard ones, that help keep teams on track. Soft skills like the lost art of empathy. But what does leading with empathy mean and how you can improve your own ability to empathize with others?
What is empathetic leadership?
Empathy is often a concept we think about more in our personal lives. Usually it’s described as the ability to detect the emotions of others and to be able to put yourself in their shoes. It’s not always easy to understand someone else’s perspective but empathetic leaders are able to see the situation from different angles. They’re the people who are more likely to help a grieving coworker or to re-energize a flagging team. These kinds of leaders understand that you need to see people as real human beings with human problems and challenges. Instead of simply ordering something done, empathetic leaders will work with their staff to achieve together. They value the strength of each individual and the combined efforts of a team. And you can see why this sort of leader is gaining attention right now. When the world shifted dramatically, these were the leaders who prioritized their people and their well-being and as a result, those teams are seeing higher levels of productivity and engagement.
Tips to improve empathy
If leading with empathy is making such a difference to the productivity and wellness of a team, what can you do to embrace your inner empath? Consider trying the following tips:
Use active listening: One of the foundations of empathetic leadership is mastering your listening skills. If you want your team to be open and honest with you, especially right now when faced with difficult times, then you need to prove you can listen without judgment. Sometimes employees just need to talk. Maybe even to vent. Allowing for more emotionally charged conversations like this helps teams feel safer with making themselves vulnerable in front of their colleagues. So next time you want to interject your opinion, think twice and see whether silence might get your further than words.
Don’t jump straight to advice: In a similar vein, when faced with a problem it’s human nature to want to jump in and solve it. And sometimes that’s exactly what you need to do. But when you can, take a step back and look at the situation as a whole. There may be elements your missing or information you don’t have yet. Fight the urge to swoop in like Superman and instead wait to hear what your employees have to say. Maybe there’s a problem they’ve already taken the initiative to try and fix. Or maybe a situation has gotten more complicated than anticipated and you need to stop and regroup. When you can, try to understand an employee’s perspective first, rather than rushing in to save them.
Find your balance: It can seem counter-intuitive to ask someone to prioritize people’s emotional well-being and then turn around and ask them to make difficult business decisions but that’s what striking the right balance is all about. You can’t be all about emotions all the time. There are instances where you need to take a firmer approach in order to get things done. This can take some introspection but figuring out where your personal balance point is can make you a more effective leader.
Learn to recognize emotion: Are you an emotional bloodhound? Don’t worry if the answer is no. This is a skill that can definitely be taught. Empathetic leaders are often very aware of the emotions of those around them and it’s not because they have any sort of innate magical ability. It takes making a conscious effort to create more space for emotions and discussing them without fear. One of the easiest things you can do on your quest to becoming more empathetic is to simply ask employees how they’re doing. You’d be surprised by the number of managers who think a casual, “you good?” covers them on this point. Instead, find time to talk to employees alone and make the effort to really check in and see how they’re doing. This is doubly important at the moment when people may be feeling more isolated than normal.
Improve your own self-awareness: It can be hard to understand others if you don’t understand yourself. Part of being a good leader who embraces empathy starts with working on your own level of awareness. What are your blind spots? Where do your own strengths and weaknesses lie? How does that impact others? Understanding yourself helps give you a better sense of others and the interpersonal relationships you develop with them. There are different ways to improve self-awareness but an easy starting point is with the help of assessments. Assessments give you actionable insight in minutes and helps you develop a deeper understanding of your own abilities and beliefs.
Everyone is empathetic
The default of human nature is to seek connections with others. We all have the ability to be more empathetic to those around us but often we get too caught up in the speed of daily life to remember to draw on those skills. Taking the time to actively think about empathy helps us focus on what matters while determining new ways forward. It bolsters team engagement, improves communication, and deepens bonds between employees which decreases turnover. Better yet, empathetic leaders inspire and empower their workers which helps keep teams connected even when physically apart. So in future when thinking about the traits great leaders share, let’s make sure empathy makes the list.