Of all the skills leaders need in these challenging times, empathy may arguably be at the top of the list. Empathy is generally defined as the ability to perceive the emotions of others and to imagine what they might be thinking or feeling. Notably, empathy is also used as an indicator of performance. According to research from the Center for Creative Leadership, “Managers who practice empathetic leadership toward direct reports are viewed as better performers in their job by their bosses.” Here are some suggestions for developing more empathetic leadership teams in your organization.
Keep the lines of communication open.
Honesty and authenticity are key parts of an empathetic relationship. To that end, your workers should feel comfortable or at least unafraid about being candid. They should believe that you’ll always give them a fair hearing, even if it doesn’t always lead to the exact outcome they’d like. Let them know that you’re always willing to listen to them or to make time for them. Foster an atmosphere where they feel secure coming to you, whether it’s with a new idea, a critique or a problem interfering with their life.
Be alert to issues of overwork.
Many workers are handling more responsibility these days. Whether due to the pandemic, company reorganizations or constantly being on call, workers are being asked to do more. Empathetic managers should be on the lookout for signs of overwork and take necessary steps to keep it from flaring into employee burnout. One way to demonstrate empathy is to check in regularly with employees and to collaborate on adjusting their workload where possible.
Be a good listener.
A simple but often overlooked way for leaders to show empathy is by listening better. Become an active listener—someone who pays close attention to what your worker is saying without interrupting. Don’t begin formulating a response even while they’re still talking. Instead, take time to process what they’ve said and what they might be feeling, and then use this to prepare a thoughtful reply that indicates that the worker has been truly heard.
Look at things through your workers’ eyes.
The concerns of workers and leaders may not always coincide, but it’s imperative to try to see things through their eyes. Put yourself in their shoes and ask yourself some fundamental questions: What would I feel if I was doing their work? What pressures do they face? What support system do they have? What goals might they have? Switching roles and seeing things from their perspective may give you new insights and build rapport.
Judge others fairly by not jumping to conclusions.
It’s easy to pigeonhole workers, such as a Type A personality or office gossip or yes-person—but resist that impulse. Instead, try to look at your workers with fresh eyes, to see each as an individual and not as part of some ill-defined stereotypical group. Don’t judge them solely on the basis of one incident or remark. Rather than branding them forever based on something from their past, try to figure out why they act or think or talk the way they do before coming to any definitive conclusions.
Workers who feel that they have been heard, seen and understood by empathetic leaders will not only perform better, but also make the leader’s job easier.