The Side of Empathy Leaders Never Talk About
Why leaders must view empathetic leadership as something to be given instead of owned—and how they can use leadership micro-behaviors to do it.
Given the events of the past few months, there’s no secret that our world could use a little more empathy right now. In the HR field, we’ve long understood the importance of empathy, and we’ve placed a high premium on empathetic leadership, as it leads to higher job performance, managerial effectiveness, and overall employee satisfaction. Moreover, people are seven times more likely to work for an organization that they describe as being very empathetic to individuals’ needs. While there is no debate about the importance of empathy in the leadership in our society and in business, there is a fundamental flaw in how we approach teaching people and leaders what it means to be empathetic: We focus on the individual and their capacity to “put themselves in another person’s shoes”. Our current discourse conceptualizes empathy as an individual practice that can be honed, refined, and ultimately owned. But this is only half of the story. There is a whole other side of empathy that leaders never talk about.
The reality is that empathy is something that is both cultivated and communicated; it’s something that is owned and given. While it’s important for leaders to be empathetic, the true power of empathy can only be harnessed when leaders go beyond simply having it. By shifting their attention to intentionally practicing the behaviors and habits that communicate empathy, leaders have an incredibly opportunity to maximize its positive impact.
When it comes to empathetic leadership, the most effective leaders don’t just settle for owning empathy – they work diligently to show it. They understand that empathy involves more than just putting yourself in another person’s shoes; it’s also about letting people know you’re there to walk the journey alongside them.
The question now becomes: how can leaders work to ensure their internal consideration for others aligns with their outward expression of empathy? There are several micro-habits from the Leader Habit that leaders can integrate into their daily practice, in order to strengthen and communicate empathy in their leadership.
- Show caring through intentional language: Using explicit language that expresses appreciation can go a long way when it comes to leaders communicating empathy in their leadership. People receive empathy when they feel like they are valued. Make sure you directly name and address people’s emotions during conversations and maintain a polite and respectful demeanor in all interactions. Adopting this practice will enable you to act and communicate in a way that makes it easier for people to perceive the empathy you are trying to demonstrate.
- Listen actively: Empathetic leaders ask open-minded and probing questions, and they restate, summarize, and clarify the things they have heard in conversation. By initiating lines of inquiry that enable people to expand on their ideas, and by recapping the things they have heard, you can communicate that you care about the other person’s perspective and that you are committed to truly understanding the information you’ve been given. Leaders are better able to communicate empathy when they listen actively.
- Build relationships: Leaders who excel in communicating and giving empathy are intentional about the way they build relationships. Focus on providing support (and offer it wherever and whenever you can). Find common interests with the people you work and interact with and create win-win opportunities for all parties involved. By taking time to intentionally invest in other people, you can show that you care about and are willing to invest in others— and the people around you are more likely to perceive and appreciate this empathy.
In a world where empathy is needed now more than ever before, leaders need to ensure they not only possess empathy, but that they also demonstrate it in a way that is easily perceived and genuinely appreciated. They need to give empathy as much as they own it.
 Gentry, William A., Todd J. Weber, and Golnaz Sadri. 2007. “Empathy in the Workplace: A Tool for Effective Leadership .” Presented at the Society of Industrial Organizational Psychology Conference, New York, April 2007‹ Previous PostNext Post ›