Why Empathy Is a Crucial Skill for Leaders
by Mark Marone | May 15, 2021 | 5 min Read
In a VUCA (volatile, uncertain, complex, and ambiguous) world, approaching situations with empathy allows leaders to have appropriate, but caring conversations. It also allows them to be in tune with employees’ well-being and create a workplace culture that is inclusive and supportive. For customers, empathy shows corporate responsibility and focuses on building human-centered relationships.
Organizations are facing a host of pressures such as leading work from home and hybrid teams, pursing diversity and inclusion efforts and responding to social, environmental and political events. Empathy is a critical element in supporting these initiatives.
What Is Empathy?
Having empathy means having the capacity to comprehend what another person is experiencing from within that person’s frame of reference. It means placing oneself in another’s position. The competency of connecting with others and relating to others—which is empathy in its purest form—is the force that can help your business succeed.
Up to 90% of Americans believe brands need to show empathy through corporate action, and 86% believe that empathy can increase customer loyalty.
Empathy is not the same as sympathy—sharing someone’s emotions, generally by feeling sad about their circumstances. An empathetic approach is one of action. It’s understanding where that customer or employee is coming from and taking steps to correct problems or pain points. Sympathy will not elicit the same outcome as empathy.
Research shows that 98% of humans are hardwired for feelings of empathy. Yet, many of us would admit that empathy takes concentration and effort, and we don’t practice it daily.
Even 58% of CEOs admit they struggle to show empathy in the workplace consistently.
Defining The Three Types of Empathy
In understanding empathy, it’s important to recognize the different forms empathy can take. There are three general types: cognitive, emotional, and compassionate empathy.
Cognitive Empathy – is about understanding the other person’s viewpoint from a logical perspective. It’s about taking on the thought processes and motives of the other person to understand their views and actions surrounding a situation.
Emotional Empathy – involves mirroring or taking on the feelings of the other person. While emotional empathy allows us to connect to others personally, it can also become overwhelming if we aren’t used to dealing with those intense feelings.
Compassionate Empathy – is what we traditionally think of as empathy—understanding another’s point of view mentally and emotionally and then taking steps to remedy the issues causing distress.
The Importance of Empathy
In a 2018 report from Businessolver, 80% of employees, HR professionals, and CEOs said that an empathetic workplace would positively impact the business by increasing employee engagement and productivity.
Today, it’s even more critical. With decisions being made about everything from reimbursing work-from-home employees for office-related purchases to whether or not to require vaccinations for workers, there are many delicate issues ahead.
Approaching these situations from an empathetic viewpoint will ensure managers and employees can work together to overcome problems.
How To Increase Workplace Empathy
Some simple ways managers and executives can increase workplace empathy include:
- Connecting with people in an empathetic way, particularly virtually, requires active listening and observation of visual emotional cues. Managers can choose in-person or video conferencing over phone or email communication to further their ability to listen and understand the other person.
- Be deliberate in managing conflict. In a Paychex study, 52% of respondents reported registering an employee dispute with HR during the pandemic. Managers can work to understand both sides of any disagreement to work toward a mutually beneficial outcome. Additionally, managers can head off disputes by working to create a psychologically safe space in the workplace.
- Communicate more. With so much uncertainty still surrounding issues like returning to the office, the introduction of automation, and new work roles, communication is vital. Allow time for questions, but ensure the message is communicated clearly and often. Executives must equally keep the lines of communication open with managers and employees.
- Train for diversity and inclusion. All of these steps require a great deal of empathy from managers and executives. They should be equipped with the tools to approach any situation with a human-centered attitude. D&I training can increase the skills needed to show empathy within the workplace and create safe workplace spaces.
In the Paychex survey, 33% of employees say they would leave a job if their manager didn’t show enough empathy.
Mark Marone, PhD. is the director of research and thought leadership for Dale Carnegie and Associates where he is responsible for ongoing research into current issues facing leaders, employees and organizations world-wide. He publishes frequently on various topics including leadership, the employee/customer experience and sales. Mark can be reached at email@example.com.