Empathy is one of the most popular topics brought up for discussion by my executive coaching clients. It’s not surprising because empathy is the most important instrument in a leader’s toolbox.
Effective leaders make it a priority to take care of their people. In return, their people give everything to protect and advance the mission of the organization. They know how to inspire and motivate by tapping into what their team truly value and want. And, with millennials firmly in the workplace, this will only become more important.
A recent study by Weber Shandwick suggests that millennials, more than any other generation, expect the organization’s core values to be reflected by senior leadership. Their early schooling in social media is changing the way we do business. Companies can no longer get away with simply providing goods or services. They are also expected to deliver their message with honesty and compassion -- in other words, empathy.
But here’s the rub: While we crave being heard and valued, we have become so caught up in technology that we are dumbing down our social skills. Psychologist Sara Konrath at Michigan University found that young people are becoming less empathic than ever; American college students showed a 48% decrease in empathic concern and a 34% drop in their ability to see other people’s perspectives.
87% of the same millennials who expect to be understood and appreciated at work also admit to missing out on a conversation because they were distracted by a phone.
In a world that becomes increasingly automated and computerised, we are losing the very skills that are essential for effective leadership. How can we stop this shipwreck? Let’s take a look:
1. Understand the meaning of empathy
I have always found empathy to be intriguing because it allows you to read minds, something that came in handy as an FBI agent. By listening to another person’s words and reading their body language, you can figure out what they are feeling and thinking.
Empathy is not sympathy, nor is it feeling sorry for others. Instead, it is understanding what others are feeling or thinking. People tend to focus on the touchy-feely aspect of empathy, and it is indeed important to understand where another person is coming from. However, an empathetic leader is also capable of sensing what another person is thinking. This can be extremely helpful in everything from negotiating a salary to planning a social event for the office.
The solution: It’s important to examine your own attitude when dealing with others. Are you more concerned with getting your way, winning or being right? Put aside your viewpoint, and try to see things from the other person's point of view. Maybe you aren’t the center of the world after all.
2. Realize that empathy is driven by our brain
Neuroscience explains that our brain produces serotonin, a neurotransmitter that is a major contributor to feelings of well-being and happiness. Other neurotransmitters, like oxytocin, contribute to emotions like pride, trust, and connection with others.
Both serotonin and oxytocin have long term effects that become stronger over time. Research on neuroplasticity shows that our brains can be rewired and that neurotransmitters can actually change the brain. On a deep level, we need to feel that we and our work is valued and appreciated by others.
All of these brain chemicals work together to help us bond with others. It’s why we feel safer when we’re part of a group. Back in the caveman days, our safety literally depended upon a group with whom we felt safe and comfortable.
The solution: Validate the other person's perspective. People have different opinions from your own and they may have good reasons for them. If you’re stuck on what to say, try this: “Is everything OK?”
3. Develop emotionally literate geeks
There are more millennials in the workplace today than boomers. Millennials are the generation raised on social media, automation and digitalization. Things that take time or slow are seen as a weakness. A large percentage feel that texting is as effective as one-on-one conversations.
We need to find ways to turn empathetic slobs into empowered leaders who can integrate technical expertise with emotional intelligence.
The solution: Take the time to embed the skills associated with empathy into every level of your organization. These are the skills that will differentiate automated machines from their human counterparts. Teach your people mental toughness so they will know how to manage their emotions, thoughts and behavior in ways that will set them up for success.
4. Pay attention
Neuroscientists have discovered that humans are wired to experience empathy through mirror neurons in our brain. These mirror neurons reflect back what we observe in others and cause us to mimic those observations in our own brains.
As it happens, mirror neurons are strongest when we observe a person’s emotions. We see facial expressions, eye movements, body movements and gestures. Consciously and unconsciously, we mimic many of those same expressions, body movements, and gestures as we talk to others.
The solution: Do not multi-task when observing another person. Turn off the cellphone and laptop and pay attention to what they are saying and doing.
5. Communicate empathetically
When interviewing an FBI suspect, I always paid more attention to their body language than to the words they used. When there is a conflict between verbal and nonverbal cues, trust the nonverbal. They are usually more accurate.
I also noticed the voice tone of politicians, newscasters and friends to understand how they used their voices to express empathy.
The solution: Practice on yourself by noticing what you are doing nonverbally when interacting with others. Notice with whom you have difficulty being empathetic. Examine why.
6. Fake it, if nothing else
I was once put in a situation where I needed to develop rapport with a convicted child molester. The victim was his own daughter. However, it was necessary for me to act empathically to achieve the desired outcome. What is interesting is that, after several minutes, I actually started to feel some empathy toward the man as a result of “acting” empathic.
The need for you to develop rapport and show empathy with a child molester is remote, but you may need to win over a creep who is also an important client.
The solution: You can disagree, or even dislike, an individual and still be capable of understanding what they are feeling and thinking. Listening without judgment can also convey empathy. Communicate to them that you understand what they are experiencing. Practice empathy even when you don’t feel like it and it will help you become a more effective leader.
LaRae Quy was an FBI undercover and counterintelligence agent for 24 years. She exposed foreign spies and recruited them to work for the U.S. government. As an FBI agent, she developed the mental toughness to survive in environments of risk, uncertainty, and deception. Quy is the author of “Secrets of a Strong Mind” and “Mental Toughness for Women Leaders: 52 Tips To Recognize and Utilize Your Greatest Strengths.” If you’d like to find out if you are mentally tough, get her free 45-question Mental Toughness Assessment. Follow her on Twitter.