In the popular imagination, leadership might be synonymous with things like authority, respect, power, and rank. In reality, though, the single most crucial factor that differentiates exceptional leaders from mediocre ones is much simpler, yet also more complex: empathy.
From Oprah Winfrey to Microsoft CEO Satya Nadella, some of the world’s foremost business leaders are reiterating time and again the indispensability of developing the skill to put yourself in someone else’s shoes in order to be able to lead well.
“Leadership is about empathy. It is about having the ability to relate to and connect with people for the purpose of inspiring and empowering their lives.” – Oprah Winfrey
Numbers tell the same story. A 2016 study conducted by leadership consulting firm DDI found that empathy is the “most critical driver” of leadership success across four domains: decision-making, coaching, engaging, and planning.
Still, there’s a huge disconnect between research and reality. The same study showed that 6 out of 10 leaders fail to demonstrate good empathy skills. The problem is compounded by the fact that empathy is generally thought of as an innate ability, which is hard to teach to those who aren’t natural-born empathisers.
That doesn’t mean it’s entirely unteachable. Just like any other skill that needs to be honed, developing empathy requires constant effort. To start with, here are four empathetic leadership habits you can start practicing at work.
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More and more, businesses are waking up to the reality that people, not profits, are their biggest priority. Transforming corporate culture to put empathy at the core of the company might take a while, but as a leader, it’s your responsibility to get the ball rolling through leading by example, starting with learning to listen.
Putting people at the centre of your business necessitates greater responsiveness to your employees’ needs, challenges, experiences, and inputs.
Start engaging more with your employees. Don’t wait for them to come up to you and start a conversation or bring up a point for discussion: approach them proactively, ask questions about how they’re doing at work, and practice active listening. Frontline employees, for example, often have lots of insights about consumer experiences, what’s working, and what’s not working.
If you can make a habit out of this, you can build the foundations for having a culture open communication at the workplace, which is crucial in facilitating conflict resolution and improving employee engagement, satisfaction, and retention in the long run.
When people feel that their leaders make it a point to listen to them genuinely, they’ll not only feel more valued: they’ll be more invested in contributing positively to the company. Everyone wins.
One-size-fits-all isn’t the best approach to take in sustaining employee motivation in the long run. Different people are driven by different things, depending on their personality styles, life experiences, and individual situations.
Empathetic leaders don’t merely rely on top-down motivation. They take it to the next level by empowering the people around themselves with the tools for self-motivation through coaching.
Empathy is what allows them to be able to help their employees capitalise and build on their strengths while buffering and overcoming their weaknesses and other barriers to personal success.
The caveat is that you can’t be a good coach without having built a good relationship with your employees. For people to be willing to accept your coaching efforts, they need to know that you’re fighting for them and that you’re in their corner all the way. That’s impossible to achieve if you haven’t cultivated strong, genuine, personal relationships with your employees. Again, it’s all about empathy.
No one is infallible. As a leader, if you can demonstrate your willingness to open yourself up to your employees, you’ll succeed in generating trust and cultivating a culture of interdependence and inter-relatedness that is crucial to any team’s success.
That doesn’t mean you need to get excessively personal and overshare about yourself, nor is it necessarily about sharing personal stories of your past successes and failures. In fact, the latter might backfire and make you look insufferably self-absorbed if you over-do it.
The key lies in two things:
Both ways indicate your humility as a leader and your sincerity in pulling together as a team to get to the finish line as one. In that sense, when you can show empathy for your employees, they’ll empathise with you in return, which sets the stage for better teamwork and performance.
Underappreciation is an underrated contributing factor to employee dissatisfaction. Leaders who don’t show appreciation for their employees fail to to foster a sense of belonging at work.
Empathetic leaders understand that people want to feel valued and that they’re making a difference. Recognising personal and team successes at work goes a long way in nurturing loyalty and commitment.
This ties in with knowing your employees’ motivations, strengths, and weaknesses. If you knew that your employee who’s just given a near perfect presentation has been wrestling with a personal fear of public speaking, you wouldn’t just say “good job!” and leave it at that.
You’d congratulate them for taking a step towards overcoming their fear and knocking it right out of the park and encourage them to keep pushing themselves little by little until they can overcome their fear completely.
It might seem like a small thing to worry about, but it’s the little things that add up at the end of the day. That’s what empathetic leaders don’t take for granted.