New research published by Development Dimensions International (2016 High Resolution Leadership Report) suggests that empathy is now one of the leading indicators of leadership performance. “Overwhelmingly, empathy tops the list as the most critical driver of overall performance. It also consistently relates to higher performance in each of the four leadership domains.” This research indicates that individuals, who were rated, were high on empathy, had better overall job performance, and were rated higher in the following areas:
- Decision making
- Planning and organizing
This research also indicates that leaders are consistently ranked low in empathy. What can we start doing today to be more empathetic in the workplace?
Let’s begin the discussion by defining empathy:
According to the Merriam-Webster dictionary, empathy is “the action of understanding, being aware of, being sensitive to, and vicariously experiencing the feelings, thoughts, and experience of another of either the past or present without having the feelings, thoughts, and experience fully communicated in an objectively explicit manner.”
Empathy is really all about having an awareness and understanding of other people’s feelings. Empathy is not sympathy. To be empathetic, one does not have to agree with how someone else is feeling.
To increase empathy in the workplace, leaders need to start by being (1) active and engaged listeners, and (2) stop being judgmental and overly critical.
- Active listeners start by removing distractions. They put away their phone, they set aside time to meet with people, and they make a concentrated effort to stay engaged in the conversation. Active listeners give all their attention to the speaker by listening more than they speak, by not jumping to conclusions, and by not developing a response before they’ve heard the whole story. And most of all, as Stephen Covey said; “they seek first to understand, then to be understood.”
- Empathetic listeners also do not pass judgment. They make sure to not be overly critical and make the situation worse. They understand that failure is part of the developmental process, and when issues arise, they talk through the situation with others and develop ways to improve future action and behaviors. Even when there is clear disagreement, the listener should thank the other person for sharing their perspective and find ways for mutual understanding. In short, empathetic listeners cultivate a safe environment for all.
Developing these two skills is not easy. Leaders need to practice them every day; with their colleagues, with their partners, and everyone else. As leaders develop their active listening skills and eliminate excessive judgmental behavior and criticism from the workplace, leaders can expect that three things will happen:
- A better awareness of the people’s feelings. Leaders will begin to better tune in to the environmental and behavioral cues around them. They will have a better understanding of the morale of the organization and a better understanding of the pulse of the culture.
- Stronger relationships. As a result of their increased ability to better tune into environmental cues, they will be better equipped to deal with issues as they are presented. By understanding where people are coming from and how people are feeling, they will start to build stronger relationships.
- Increased organizational trust. Your increased active listening skills will directly result in increased communication skills. You will be able to better inspire and motivate, able to foster engagement, able to empower your employees, and more. Most importantly, you will build trust through open dialogue because others will be able to go to you for advice without fear of criticism.
What happens when leaders lack empathy? They can foster a toxic work culture. In consulting at client sites, I have found that coercive, authoritative, and directive leadership is still the norm. Very little respect for people is present. This then fosters an undignified workplace, it creates fear and anxiety in the employees, and can even foster resentment toward leadership.
Let’s all try to be more empathetic, not just at work, but with all our relationships. Please comment on how you practice empathetic leadership or any other thought you may have.
Your personal action plan:
- Practice active listening
- Stop judging and being overly critical of others
Results that you can expect:
- A better awareness of the feelings of those around you
- Stronger relationships
- Increased organizational trust