Leading with Empathy: Why do we Still not Believe?

Leading with Empathy: Why do we Still not Believe?

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A lot of people when they hear the word “empathy” in a business context still think of it as soft, somehow lacking authority and conviction. That leaders who have empathy for the people they lead aren’t making the difficult decisions or commanding the appropriate respect.

We now have conclusive evidence this is not the case.

In her Harvard Business Review (HBR) article, The Hard Data on Being a Nice Boss, Emma Seppala cites research by Harvard Business School’s Amy Cuddy:

Leaders who project warmth – even before establishing their competence – are more effective than those who lead with their toughness and skill. Why? One reason is trust. Employees feel greater trust with someone who is kind.

Seppala goes on to cite studies by Jonathan Haidt at New York University Stern School of Business:

Jonathan Haidt at New York University Stern School of Business shows in his research that when leaders are self-sacrificing, their employees experience being moved and inspired. As a consequence, the employees feel more loyal and committed and are more likely to go out of their way to be helpful and friendly to other employees. Research on “paying it forward” shows that when you work with people who help you, in turn you will be more likely to help others (and not necessarily just those who helped you).

So, with these and many more studies, there is no reason to still be skeptical of empathy as a trait of a great leader.

Tony Norton, in his article Why the empathetic leader is the best leader, talks about Simon Sinek in his best-selling book on team-building.

Empathy—the ability to recognize and share other people’s feelings—is the most important instrument in a leader’s toolbox, Sinek believes. It can be expressed in the simple words, “Is everything OK?”

It’s what effective leaders ask an employee, instead of commanding “Clean out your desk” when he or she starts slacking off. It’s what you ask a client when a once-harmonious relationship gets rocky. “I really believe in quiet confrontation,” Sinek says. “If you had a good working relationship with someone and it’s suddenly gone sour, I believe in saying something like, ‘When we started we were both so excited, and it’s become really difficult now. Are you OK? What’s changed?’ ”

Sinek has been training himself to be more empathic by paying attention to everyday gestures, such as holding elevators for others or refilling the coffeemaker. Even small acts of kindness release a tiny shot of feel-good oxytocin. What’s more, “These little considerations for others have a building effect,” Sinek says. “The daily practice of putting the well-being of others first has a compounding and reciprocal effect in relationships, in friendships, in the way we treat our clients and our colleagues.”

I have no doubt that empathy will become further recognised as one of the traits of a truly great leader. Gandhi, Mother Teresa, Martin Luther King, Eleanor Roosevelt, and the list goes on and on. As we recognise true leaders in history, and analyse what makes them great, we’ll come to understand the importance of empathy.

In the business world, leaders need to have emotional intelligence and the ability to truly listen and hear what their employees are telling them. True leaders in business will think about how management decisions will affect their employees, they’ll clearly communicate the changes, and will minimise any adverse effects.

When employees feel their leaders truly hear them, and understand where they’re coming from, they’ll feel more comfortable and trust that leaders ‘have their back’ and are making the right decisions for the organisation. This leads to more engaged, happier employees who are more productive.

I’m a believer.

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