Empathy fuels connection and at the highest levels in any organization, relationships are how work gets done. The higher one climbs, technical acumen becomes less important than relational acumen. Efficacy as a leader increasingly depends upon EQ over IQ.
In his article which appeared in the Washington Post, “Leadership character: The role of empathy,” Colonel Eric Kail notes, “Leadership, after all, is a relationship. We cannot expect others to go very far with us in a relationship until we reveal who we are and in turn learn who they are in a meaningful manner.”
This statement underscores some key truths: how long someone is willing to follow a leader is a conscious choice, people need to trust those they follow, and there is a human need to feel known. At its core, empathy is the ability (and willingness) to learn about someone else in terms of what drives them and how they experience the world. Effective leaders, both within the community and within organizations, understand this and employ empathy to develop and maintain strong relationships with their external and internal constituents.
If you suspect empathy is not one of your strongest competencies, the good news is that it can be learned simply by asking questions and listening to hear versus listening to respond. At an organizational level, leaders can encourage their employees to engage with the community in an effort to understand the needs and people with whom they live and work. These are skills that are taught to our program participants at Leadership Greater Hartford.
Many of us received early training in empathy from our parents. Can you recall times when you complained about someone else’s behavior and one of your parents asked, “Why don’t you put yourself in their shoes and see how it might feel?”
Organizations frequently use personality assessments such as Myers Briggs, DISC, or the Enneagram, with the two-fold intent for employees to gain a better self-awareness and a heightened understanding of and an appreciation for those with whom they work. With this understanding, the hope is that leaders can better motivate and inspire their teams and form stronger relationships across the organization.
In my capacity as an executive coach, I have observed many clients stop at the self-awareness piece and fail to expend the effort to understand their team. They often cite time as the culprit. If they had more time, they would engage more with their people, but time being limited, tasks receive higher priority.
Unfortunately, when leaders don’t understand what drives the people they are leading, miscommunications, underperformance and demotivation result, which in turn become the catalysts for long-overdue conversation. Conversation is then conflated with confrontation, and I observe my clients and program participants expending energy anticipating their own discomfort rather than investing the energy in an open dialogue fueled by curiosity to learn more.
Daniel Goleman, author of the groundbreaking book, Emotional Intelligence, describes two types of empathy and how each type can be effectively used in his recent article published for the Korn Ferry Institute, How Empathy Adds to a Leader’s Power. Cognitive empathy is the ability to understand another person’s perspective – how they think. Emotional empathy is the ability to sense how someone feels about their experience through non-verbal cues.
In addition to time, some of my clients shy away from the concept of empathy as they fear it may make them appear “soft,” or they equate being empathetic as running around feeling everyone’s pain. However, as Goleman explains, leaders skilled in empathy gather invaluable information. If a leader can understand how staff views the organization through the lens of their positions, valuable information about potential inefficiencies, leadership deficiencies and working conditions can be revealed. Moreover, understanding the personalities and feelings of staff lend insight into tensions brewing between departments or among team members before a tipping point is reached.
So how can you show up as a more empathetic leader? Consider setting some dates for coffee with members of your staff. Ask open-ended questions that seek to better understand their world. Inquire how you can support them with any challenges they share. This investment of your time will yield a huge return. You will be the empathetic leader that people will continue to choose to follow.
Julie Connolly is the director of Leadership Greater Hartford’s Quest program