Why Good Leaders Have Empathy

Finding good managers is hard. By and large, my managers have all been technically brilliant. They know the business inside out but when it comes to showing empathy, they have mostly fallen short.

Take a former manager who sat silently whilst I cried hysterically after receiving a call that my beloved grandmother had died and as soon as I came back from the funeral, dumped on me a heavier work-load. I felt demotivated and even more sad. He hadn’t even asked me how I was doing. Or the directors who knew that I had been caring for my father whose cancer was terminal. When I eventually came back to work after losing him, my world was a mess. In every sense. I was just surviving, after experiencing something that I can only describe as a tsunami of pain and suffering. One of my directors didn’t know what to say and avoided me like the plague. It hurt but I also understood, this leader just doesn’t know how to express empathy and maybe didn’t have any. Again, it made me lose motivation and interest which was not surprising, given my grief.

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It’s not just about how you respond to team members who have emotional difficulties. Empathy encompasses key leadership skills. So much of human interaction involves the expression of empathy because it requires you to put yourself in the position of the other person. You know that a person who is grieving may not be so interested in their work for a period of time and you can imagine that losing a loved one is painful. In other words, you’re able to connect with another person on an emotional level because you understand your own emotions, vulnerabilities, strengths, needs and desires. Even in times of conflict, you reach the other person on a deeper level. This takes courage and wisdom. And each of you have it.

Here’s how, as leaders, expressing empathy will help you manage your teams better.

  • Listen to people. Listening skills are crucial because you make the other person feel understood. They matter and you aregenuinely curious to know how you are and why something is important to you. This is the highest form of respect and you show this by sitting with somebody, acknowledging the key points of what they are saying, summarising to show you understand and doing all of this in an unbiased and unjudgmental manner. Don’t talk over them, let them express themselves and ask them open questions.  This is important for leaders because you gain information about your team that is useful to you and you give and gain respect, the value of which cannot be quantified.
  • Allow people to express difficult emotions without shutting them down. Whether you like it or not, we bring our emotions to the office. Suppressing them can lead to unresolved and destructive conflict which undermines a team and its objectives. If a team member expresses sadness or anger, let them do so, as long as it does not become aggressive, intimidating or threatening to you or others. To do this, you need to become comfortable with your own emotions which means observing them in a non-judgmental manner and accepting them.
  • Act with Integrity which necessarily involves empathy because you communicate honestly and stand up for what is right, irrespective of how you will be seen. That could involve standing up for an employee being harassed by a colleague or voicing an opinion that runs contrary to senior management because something might not be in the interests of the team. Integrity involves being in touch with your team, their needs and assessing the impact of policies and strategies on them.
  • Safeguard a Healthy Work Culture An empathetic leader will insist on a working environment which requires politeness, respect, kindness, honesty and support. These principles build trust and encourage team members to work together in an open and productive manner. You can’t expect this if there is no trust or respect. Unhappy workforces result in burn out and toxic behaviours that have an impact on the company’s bottom line and output.
  • Encourage recognition and growth we all need this to grow and progress is any sphere of our lives and it’s just as important in the workplace. Without it, employees will feel unappreciated and undervalued. After all, why strive for brilliance if it’s not recognised?
  • Walk the Talk.   If you, as a leader, don’t display some of the basic principles that underline empathy, then none of the above will be convincing and could undermine your credibility. To inspire trust, you must be trustworthy. To inspire respect, you must show it to others and most importantly, team members need to see you apologise for mistakes when you make them, respond compassionately to yourself and others and show the occasional vulnerability.

Empathy is the glue that connects us, it colours our communication and instils the most beautiful sense of comfort when we can see our leaders support us. They are not only technically brilliant but also authentically and unapologetically human. They drive healthy, skillful teams who are inspired and engaged. These teams are the most productive and they start with our leaders.

As always, I’d love to read your comments so please feel free to leave them below !

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