Empathy is not a new concept, but its impact on leaders and on employee satisfaction can no longer be denied, so you would be forgiven for feeling as though you are very suddenly hearing the word empathy branded around all over the place.
But exactly how important is empathy, and what impact does it have on employee satisfaction?
What is empathy?
Empathy is not as simple as feeling sorry for other people. In fact, there are three main types of empathy.
The most general type of empathy is called ‘cognitive’ empathy. This is where you understand the way someone else might be feeling. For example, you’re delivering them bad news about the promotion they wanted, and you understand that they feel hurt, disappointed, and perhaps angry. You suspect they might feel like quitting.
The second form of empathy is called ‘emotional’ empathy. This is where you feel part of what another person is feeling at that time. As the boss of the employee who was not awarded the promotion, you might feel their upset and disappointment, because you too were rooting for their good fortune.
The last main form of empathy is called ‘compassionate’ empathy, and this is where you are moved to help someone. As a leader, this might mean that you feel compelled to assist your employee to achieve their promotional dreams.
Now that you understand the three types of empathy, you can no doubt see the benefit there would be to employees if you were a well-rounded and empathetic leader. It is the best way for them to achieve their dreams.
The statistics speak for themselves
We shouldn’t just consider empathy because it is the right thing to do to be kind to our employees, but also because it does actually make a difference to their productivity.
A study with 209 participants conducted by marketing professionals Kelly Herd (University of Connecticut) and Ravi Mehta (University of Illinois) found that those asked to think about how a consumer might feel when using a product came up with more innovative ideas than those asked to consider how a consumer might think.
This means that encouraging your employees to be empathetic can improve their work.
But how does empathy in leadership impact employees more generally?
Well, in studies by the Management Research Group, it was discovered that empathy was the top competence for good leadership and, when measured against other predictors, one of the top three strongest for senior executive effectiveness. This means that the more empathetic you are the more likely you are to be rated an effective leader.
Similar results were found in a CCL analysis of over 6,000 leaders from 38 countries. In that study, superior performance was almost always linked with enhanced empathy. A recent DDI analysis of 15,000 business leaders confirmed the same link.
But only 40% of business leaders have proficient empathy skills. That means that enhancing your empathy will not only make you a better leader, but is highly likely to give you an advantage over the majority of other leaders, who do not have the same ability.
How do I become more empathetic?
If you want to become a more empathetic leader, you must become a more empathetic person generally. There are five key things you can do to develop your empathy.
- Active Listening: Listen more than you speak. Be careful to pay careful attention to your employees and what they’re saying. Listen wholeheartedly, don’t just wait for your turn to talk.
- Voice your empathy: Wait until you’ve heard your employee out and then say something like ‘that must feel awful’ or ‘ I am really sorry to hear this’.
- Be vulnerable. Vulnerability proves you are human and will help your employees to identify with you. The best way to do this is to ask for help when you need it.
- Don’t make assumptions. Assumptions are the opposite of empathy because you’re not giving people a chance to tell you or show them how you feel, you are assuming you already know, and then you will act on those assumptions, potentially in the wrong way.
- Employees are human beings, as are you. Everyone wants to be understood, but sometimes we don’t know whether we are being understood. Therefore as a leader or manager, you can show that you understand in a clear and direct way.
- Use your imagination. You are not going to be able to relate to the individual circumstance of absolutely everyone you meet, so you need to use your imagination sometimes in order to reconcile how someone might feel.
Dr John Behr, executive coach with over 25 years’ experience says:
“How can employees assume that leaders are seeing their value, without understanding their context? The only way to really empathise and understand your employees is by putting yourself in their chair. You can simply ask – ‘What are you thinking?’ from time to time to get a better understanding.
“There are a range of ways to express empathy. Empathy can be powerful if someone has a broad toolkit for expressing it. The value being that people feel they are understood, thus creating a healthier organization, which doesn’t allow anyone to hide.
“I bring empathy into my coaching many times. I encourage my clients to keep a broad range of tools to express empathy within the organization. To do this, the leader or executive must be willing to meet the employee where they are and be willing to engage in a little give and take.”
Developing empathy through executive coaching
Since empathy is so important you might feel like aligned coaching and guidance on developing it would help you immeasurably. That’s where Dr. John Behr can help. The John Behr Group accelerates the growth of global leaders and senior executives with one-on-one coaching.
We can help you develop your empathy and all other aspects of your leadership style.
For more information you can get in touch via our contact form.