In our previous post about women in leadership, we explored the meaningful ways female and male leaders differ, based on thousands of Leadership Circle Profile (LCP) assessments around the world. Our research revealed that female leaders scored higher in every Creative dimension of the LCP: Relating, Self-awareness, Authenticity, Systems Awareness, and Achieving. Female leaders demonstrate more fully developed competency than their male counterparts in skills such as building caring connections, mentoring and developing others, and showing concern for the community.
These skills correspond to high scores in leadership effectiveness, regardless of gender, which means every leader can benefit from strengthening them.
In this post, we’ll dive into the Creative dimension of Relating, a leader’s ability to relate to others in a way that brings out the best in people, groups, and organizations, and one aspect of Relating that successful leaders must embrace: empathy.
What is empathy?
Empathy combines the perception of others’ feelings with the cognitive understanding of why they feel that way and how we can help them. Empathetic leaders can see and relate to the needs, thoughts, emotions, and experiences of others, imagining, if not fully understanding, a situation from another’s perspective.
It’s important to remember the difference between empathy and sympathy. Even though the two words are often used interchangeably, they mean different things.
- Empathy is the capacity to imagine oneself in the circumstances of another, understanding or feeling the emotions, thoughts, and experiences of that person.
- Sympathy is the experience of feeling pity for another, without understanding or relating to what it’s like to be in their situation.
Empathy in the Workplace
When people treat each other with respect and approach interactions with the intent to learn and understand, organizations see not only increases in productivity and performance, but in team morale, communication, and growth. Employees who see their leaders demonstrate empathy are more likely to express empathy themselves.
Despite this, 79% of CEOs say they struggle to be empathetic, according to Business Solver’s 2022 State of Workplace Empathy report, and 77% worry they will lose respect if they’re too empathetic.
To that, we say, stop worrying. If you want to be more effective as a leader, lean into empathy.
Five Ways You Can Show Up as an Empathic Leader
- Show genuine interest.
Show an interest in the needs, lives, and goals of your people, whether that’s knowing what sport one team member’s child plays or knowing that another is looking to boost their web editing skills. Employees who feel seen are more likely to engage in their work and with their co-workers.
- Learn to listen.
When it comes to listening, less is more—as in, less assuming, less outside distraction, and less anticipation of your own response. Put away your phone and employ active listening techniques, including asking open-ended questions, making eye contact, and paying attention to the speaker’s facial expressions and body language.
- Acknowledge and challenge your own biases.
Bias is not inherently bad; it’s a natural result of the unique set of circumstances that make up your lived experience. Though it may be natural (and feel more comfortable) to gravitate toward people with similar perspectives and opinions to your own, strive to reach beyond that, and encourage your team to do the same. Conversations with co-workers outside your inner circle may spark new awareness and new ways of thinking.
- Be open and honest yourself.
Talk about your big swings and failed attempts. Be open about the experiences that have made you stronger and wiser. Make yourself available. Your willingness to be vulnerable will inspire trust and set the tone for your team.
- Treat your people like people.
In order to work together as colleagues, we must understand each other as human beings. Connect with your team on a personal level before tackling business. Check in regularly. Keep an eye out for burnout. Celebrate personal and professional successes. When you ask, “How are you?” be sure you hear the answer. Laugh when things are funny and share the grief when they’re sad. Sharing real, genuine emotion builds camaraderie and fosters authentic relationships.
At the heart of empathy is curiosity—curiosity about another’s lived experience and perspective, curiosity about their ideas and opinions, curiosity about the way they feel and what they need. And curiosity about one’s own emotions, biases, and responses.
When a leader leans into empathy and hones their empathetic leadership skills, they increase their effectiveness, build and cultivate strong relationships with top talent, and help create an environment where employees can thrive.
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