Most business leaders do not understand the power of leadership empathy because they do not know what empathy is. I continuously hear business people disparaging empathy in business as a “soft skill” that is genuinely unimportant in the real world. How wrong they are.
Why Is Empathy Overlooked In Leadership?
First, many in business believe that emotion in the workplace equates to a character weakness. You are not a real competitor if you allow your feelings to be displayed. This belief comes from 3,000 years of cultural programming (see Plato’s Phaedrus) that claims humans are rational, and emotions are bad and irrational. In the past 20 years, neuroscience has debunked this myth. Science shows us we are 98% emotional and only 2% rational. Thus, to be emotional is to be human, and learning emotional competency becomes critical.
Second, many organizations and managers focus on achieving goals no matter what the cost to the employees. The result is low productivity, competition instead of collaborative teamwork, turnover, and low morale. If you don’t care about your people, empathy and leadership are not important.
Empathy is a Core Leadership Skill
Empathy is one of the core 5 essential cognitive capacities and personality traits that every leader must-have. (The others are self-awareness, trust, critical thinking, and discipline/self-control.) If you cannot read, understand, and properly react to your team members’ feelings, you will not be a leader. Instead, you will be a distrusted manager who will be unable to achieve excellence.
Empathy is a Data Analysis Skill
Leadership with empathy is not a soft skill; It is a data analysis skill. It is the ability to read and reflect on another person’s emotional experience. Like the practice of self-awareness, empathy involves scanning large sets of data and sorting out what’s noise and what’s essential information.
Essentially, leadership with empathy is a neutral data gathering tool that enables you to understand the human environment within which you are operating in the business. You will make better predictions, craft better tactics, inspire loyalty, and communicate clearly with good emotional data. Like any other data analysis skill, leaders must learn empathy; empathy is not innate.
Many people confuse leadership with empathy with being nice, comforting upset people, or making others happy. Not true. As a data analytic tool, empathy is the ability to read emotional data fields, make sense of them, and reflect those emotions back to the speaker. While this has the effect of de-escalating anger and other strong emotions, its purpose is not to make you appear friendly. Most of the time, in a business setting, you will be neutral.
Why Learn Leadership With Empathy?
Empathy is important because it,
- Gives you insight into another person’s motivations
- Gives you the ability to judge whether a candidate is right for the position
- Tells you what your client’s pain points are
- Allows you to meet your customer’s true needs
- Enables you to understand how another person is likely to behave
- Gives you the ability to predict another person’s reactions, especially in negotiations
- Allows you to calm an angry person
- Creates a more loyal, engaged, and productive team
Leadership with empathy gives you the power to create psychological safety for your teams and organization.
Without empathy, you have no way to understand what other people think, feel, and do around you. You have effectively blinded yourself to the most valuable information a leader can have.
Our confidence that we can face the dangers around us depends on feeling safe in a group. Empathy in the workplace creates a psychologically safe space.
Empathy is positively related to job performance. Managers who practice empathetic leadership toward direct reports are viewed as better performers in their job by their bosses.
Teams led by high emotional intelligence people tend to work hard and persevere through the rough patches. They also develop deeper bonds of trust, which are essential when employment status seems all too fragile. Empathy is a critical skill in building emotional intelligence.
Business Schools Do Not Teach Leadership With Empathy
Unfortunately, business schools do not teach empathy. Empathy is not taught in any formal educational system, even though it is a core human skill.
First, business professors are more interested in quantitative data analysis than the subtler and more challenging emotional data analysis. They are professionally and temperamentally unsuited for empathy master and teaching as a data analytic skill.
Second, empathy as a field of study is psychological and neuro-psychological. The strong academic distaste for multi-disciplinary study prevents expertise in empathy from developing in business schools.
Leaders are left with commercial courses, consultants, and coaches, many of whom are unqualified to teach empathy and leadership.
Signs You May Need More Empathy
As a leader, you need stronger empathy skills.
How do you know if you should develop empathy? Here is a list of attitudes and behaviors. If you check off more than two or three of these as consistent with you, you need to strengthen your empathy.
- Your employees are tight-lipped in meetings, afraid to speak up for fear of being humiliated or rejected
- You need to control everything and everyone
- You wonder why people bring so much emotional baggage to work
- You spend too much time resolving interpersonal conflicts, fights, and arguments
- You’re focused more on the outcome and less about the process
- You are considered cold, intense, aloof, unapproachable, or arrogant
- People avoid working on projects with you
- Your mantra is “my way or the highway”
- You think emotions have no place in business
- You believe humans are rational, and any emotionality is a sign of irrationality
- You believe that emotions are weak and irrational
- You don’t like the messiness of emotions
- You are anxious around emotional people
- You make a blanket statement of “Great job, everyone” at the end of a project without acknowledging specific contributions that led to success
How Can You Become a More Empathetic Leader?
Leadership with empathy requires a different kind of listening to gather and analyze another type of data. Instead of listening to words, learn how to listen to emotions. 93% of the information communicated by humans is non-verbal. We do not learn how to systematically pay attention to, understand, and use non-verbal information. However, recent brain scanning studies have shown how our brains process emotional information. Remember: Emotions are data.
Leadership with empathy is a three-step process. When you listen, you must
- Ignore the words
- Read the emotional data fields
- Reflect back the emotions with a simple “you” statement.
Imagine a scenario where your employee John comes to you with an issue weighing on him for a few months.
John: “Hey, I want to run something by you. The reports I get from Rebecca in IT never seem to have all of the information I need to move forward. It’s creating a lot more work on my part to chase things down, which makes it seem like I’m the bottleneck.”
You (dismissively): “Well, sometimes things like that happen.”
When you say something like this, you are emotionally invalidating John. Emotional invalidation occurs whenever you dismiss, judge, or try to change another person’s feelings. Emotional invalidation is the most common, pervasive, and insidious form of emotional abuse and is the opposite of empathy.
You (sympathetically): “Yeah, this job can be really frustrating. I’m sorry about that. I bet Rebecca will figure it out and get better over time.”
When you say this, you again invalidate John’s feelings and shut him down.
You (using an “I” statement), “I understand how you feel. We will get this figured out.”
Using an “I” statement in the old pop psychology form of “active listening” is not empathy because you reflect your understanding, not John’s feelings. The only way John will know that you understand is to reflect his actual feelings without interjecting your understanding.
You (reflecting John’s feelings): “You are frustrated and feel disrespected. You are anxious and worried. You don’t feel like you have control. You are blamed for a problem you have not created. You feel that you are being treated unfairly.”
As you can tell, this is very different. It may seem condescending, rude, or intrusive to tell someone how they are feeling. Brain science shows, however, that this is the only way to create empathy. Furthermore, you will learn quickly that the other person is deeply grateful for your listening and validating.
Once you master the skill of reflecting emotions, everything changes. I call this “Listening another person into existence.”
Become a leader with empathy and gain more power and prestige in your organization. The time you spend mastering empathy as a sophisticated form of data analysis will lead to powerful transformations in your organization, career, and personal life.
This article has been reprinted with permission from Doug Noll’s page.