Leading with Empathy
The subject of leading with empathy is a very thought-provoking exercise as it calls for sober reflection anytime we are called to it. It is important for employers today to hire and develop more effective managers and leaders who have the competence of moving their organisations forward during both good and challenging times. This will require looking beyond traditional strategies for management development and cultivating the skills most important for success. One of such skills sought after today is Leading with Empathy – a vital leadership competence in today’s volatile and competitive business environment.
To begin, we would define empathy as the ability to understand and share the feelings of another. Simply put, ‘standing in the shoes of another’. To be clear, empathy, not sympathy.
Empathy and sympathy are not the same. Whereas sympathy involves having feelings of pity and sorrow for someone else’s misfortune, not experiencing the act oneself, empathy involves putting oneself in the other person’s shoes and trying to understand why they may feel a particular way in order to better support them in making more helpful decisions.
Psychologists have sought to explain three types of empathy as cognitive, emotional and compassionate. This classification is necessary because all three manifest in different ways in our experiences at home, the workplace, or with our friends and family.
Leadership can be explained as the process by which a person can direct, guide and influence the behaviour and work of others towards accomplishment of specific goals in a given situation. More importantly, it connotes the ability of a manager to induce his team to work with confidence and zeal or the ability to get extraordinary achievements from ordinary people. Empathetic leadership means having the ability to understand the needs of others, being aware of their feelings and thoughts towards achieving set group objectives through influence.
Charles Andrew Stanley of North Point Ministries, Atlanta Georgia USA, in his speech on Leading Through has explained that, “Leading with empathy involves the leader showing a moral authority and displaying credibility of what we say and do by being our human self. We must be human, that is being vulnerable, transparent, being real, exercise our empathy muscle”. The employees who are looking up to us must experience our humanity. When the people looking up to us are convinced that we know how they feel, they would follow us to even the unknown, but for them to follow us, we must convince them that we understand how they feel. Empathy here helps us to shepherd people, which involves checking up on them, stepping into people’s roles, and reassuring them that we are putting them first.
Jesus Christ of Nazareth is classic and a perfect example of a leader with a lot of empathy. Jesus said, “I am the good shepherd, the good shepherd lays down his life for his sheep,” (John 10:3-4). Our voice is more important than our words if we have to lead with empathy. We must assure our employees that we really care. One way of doing this could be calling employees to check up on them. Our presence is more important than our presentation. We must ask ourselves this question; is my humanity evident to people; do they know I care?
A research conducted by the Centre for Creative Leadership from Asia for the World Research Report 2022 shows that today’s leaders must be more ‘person-focused’ and able to work well with people from varying teams, departments, countries, cultures, and backgrounds. To determine if empathy influences a manager’s job performance, data was analysed from 6,731 mid to upper middle-level managers in 38 countries by this research group. The leaders in the study were rated on their level of empathy, as measured by the benchmarks (R)360-degree feedback assessment – an appraisal or performance assessment tool that incorporates feedback from all who observe and are affected by the performance of an employee. The result of the survey was that empathy in the workplace is positively related to job performance. The research showed that managers who practiced empathetic leadership towards their direct reports were viewed as better performers by their bosses. These findings were consistent across the sample, that is those managers who were rated as empathetic by subordinates, were also rated as high performing by their own superiors.
Let us assume that a team leader walks into a monthly meeting of sales people and looking at the figures displayed on the screen says, “you guys, your figures are down for the third quarter in a row, if you do not step up your game I’m sorry we cannot guarantee your continuous stay here’’; while another leader in a similar meeting looks at the figures and says, “guys, are you okay? I am worried about you. Is everything going well; what do you need me to assist you with to turn your figures around?”. If you were a sales person in the session, which of these leaders would you like to work with? Of course, the second one and why? Because he expressed concern and interest in identifying challenges that may be inhibiting their performance. She or he expressed humanity by acknowledging that what you may be going through – which could be a relationship problem, financial challenge, logistics, etc. – could be resulting in inconsistencies in the production figures. This could strongly influence your decision to accept his/her leadership and follow them. When this leadership style is exercised, it leads to a positive shift in how employees work, increases productivity, brings the team to great success and inspires peak performance.
Empathetic leadership has been a key trait that has been nurtured at StarLife for the past 17years. We strive each day to be more empathetic towards our internal and external stakeholders for a win-win outcome. One of the measures taken in light of this is the inauguration of a counselling committee to support employees facing work-related challenges and to support them to overcome those challenges.
Deployment of Microsoft 365 tools has facilitated checking for availability and arranging for quick and convenient virtual meetings between managers and their team members. These have served to discuss critical employee issues, and to address concerns and challenges of entire departments more promptly. While these digital tools have enhanced access of employees to their leaders and vice versa, they have also presented more efficient ways of working collaboratively on documents in real time, thereby improving upon the quality of teamwork and garnering a sense of joint ownership of team results.
Overall, the Human Resource Management function champions empathetic leadership throughout the company. This is done through need-based staff development activities to enhance both the technical, managerial and personal competencies of employees. This has led to the development of highly-skilled professionals who are helping in pushing the company’s mission. In addition, there is a continuous review of the on-boarding program for new employees to enable them adapt to the culture of the organisation.
Occasional ‘Happy Hour’ sessions after work such as table tennis competitions to bring out innovative abilities of employees and foster good relationships within the team, among other things, have also been implemented. All these are meant to motivate employees to give off their best on the job.
Humans are multifaceted and usually a sum of their different experiences. Dissatisfaction in one area has the potential to have ripple effects on others. To get optimal performance of employees within any organization, it is important that they feel a part of it and for them to know that they matter. Empathetic leadership helps employees to know they are noticed and boosts their energy and commitment to give off their best. This is the direction in which today’s world is headed. If any organization aims at staying ahead in its industry while getting the best of its human resource, empathetic leadership is definitely an approach to consider.