I recently had a conversation with an organizational leader who expressed that “empathetic leadership” is one of the biggest threats to the performance of his team. He believed that team members simply sought for their leaders to be more empathetic to their challenges and circumstance (really sympathy), and that leaders felt called to be more nurturing of their people, leading to an inability to maintain high standards of performance. As I listened to this leader speak more on his unapproving perceptions on empathy and leadership, I realized the source of the issue – I think he has an inaccurate and limited view on the role of empathy in leadership.

This issue is not unique to this leader or case. We have an enduring problem in our understanding of empathy and leadership that tends to fall into one of three issues.

  • It’s Soft & a Convenience: No matter how effective one is at incorporating empathy into their leadership, there is a limited or lack of observable return on investment (ROI). Thus, many view this dynamic of our leadership as “soft” or some convenience that we can attend to once we achieve results and performance compliance first.
  • We are Uneducated & Unskilled: Merely having a lack of education around what empathy is and how to integrate it successfully into our leadership style can lead us to misjudge and ultimately minimize the effect it can have on how we best work with others.
  • It’s Uncomfortable: Leading with empathy requires us to fill challenging and uncomfortable spaces as leaders. Many of us are more willing to avoid this space than having the candor to step into the challenges of our people.

Empathy is an essential leader behavior to earn and maintain the trust with others by demonstrating genuine care – care for our people, their circumstances, and their needs. Like developing any skill, it requires an education and training to better enable us to practice it deliberately a thousand times and integrate it as a habit of our leadership.

Empathy: What It is & What It is Not

As part of an introductory education to empathy and leadership, it’s important to clarify what empathy is…and what it is not. Donald Miller, author of Building a StoryBrand and Business Made Simple, stated that, “The best definition I’ve heard for empathy is ‘shared pain.’ Sharing somebody’s pain is hard to do from a distance. We have to get close to have empathy.” Most specifically, I see empathy as our ability and willingness to identify, understand, and consider others’ feelings, circumstances, and experiences. It’s making the effort as a leader to meet the other person where they are at. To do this, we must appreciate their context – their circumstances and perspectives.

Empathy is not soft, overly emotional, or weak leadership. In fact, it’s quite the opposite. Being empathetic is not hastily solving someone’s problem for them or becoming their hero. In hearing someone share a challenge or issue, we do not quickly respond by saying, “Oh you’re having this issue? Well, let me tell you what you need to do to fix it…”. It’s also not what Kim Scott calls “Ruinous Empathy” in her book, Radical Candor. Summarized on her website, “Ruinous Empathy is what happens when you want to spare someone’s short-term feelings, so you don’t tell them something they need to know. You Care Personally, but fail to Challenge Directly. It’s praise that isn’t specific enough to help the person understand what is good, or criticism that is sugar-coated and unclear. Or simply silence. Ruinous Empathy may feel nice or safe, but is ultimately unhelpful and even damaging. This is a feedback fail.” Others may know this as crippling compassion.

Empathy is being committed to and the art of noticing, appreciating, and considering another’s circumstances, feelings, and needs as you lead and influence. This is what enables you to better know the other person, meet them where they are at, all to better lead them in the ways you and the team need. It is not coddling, overly compassionate, and something that prevents us from holding others accountable. We can and must still demonstrate empathy as we communicate expectations, give feedback, and develop others.

Why We Must Care About Empathy & Leadership

Beyond the points considered above, there are a few additional reasons why leaders must care about and be deliberate in injecting effective empathy into the way they influence and work with others.

  • Trust Through Care: We see trust as the total of leader competence, character, and care. Empathy – being aware, invested, and considerate in working with others – is a key mechanism for demonstrating care to earn and maintain trust with others.
  • Engaged Leadership: As Donald Miller’s quote asserts above, we must be close to properly demonstrate empathy. It requires us to take time to listen, which leads us to better engage our people. This leads to others feeling more seen, appreciated, and thus valued.
  • Maintain a Pulse on the Team: Don’t underestimate what you, the leader, get out of being more empathetic either. By listen and considering, you become more in-tune and engaged with those on your team; you have a deeper and more accurate sense of what’s going on! This enables you to set better and more appropriate expectations, give better guidance and feedback, and make better decisions for the team.
  • Team Viability: All of this enacted together leads to much higher team viability – or the ability for our team to survive and thrive. Our people feel more seen and valued, leaders are more in-tune and engaged, and we are making better decisions for the team. Teams with greater functional norms like this and deliberately pouring into one another leads to the ability for the team to perform well over much longer periods of time.

What It Looks Like in Action

It is one thing to talk about the idea of empathy in our leadership, but it’s a bit harder to consider what it actually looks like in behavior, especially if this is a new concept for us. Here are a few small examples of what leading with and through empathy can look like in our leadership.

  • Listen & Be Present: Listen actively and empathetically. This is what Stephen Covey discusses in his book, The 7 Habits of Highly Effective People, with the habit, “Seek to understand, then be understood.” When we are with our people, be fully present (not distracted with email, our phone, or others interrupting us with unimportant urgencies). Listen to understand, not merely to respond. Ask questions to dig deeper, have the other person express more, and to get to the root issue or motives. Small questions or statements can help the conversation go deeper, such as “what” or “how” questions, “say more about that,” or even “what do you mean by that?”.
  • Be Considerate, Appreciate, & Decide: Be curious and open. I may have a different perspective or may outright disagree with what someone is saying in the moment, but that does not authorize me to stop listening and caring about the person. Listen to assess and identify needs. Then, consider what is best for the bigger picture long-term, for the person, and for the team based on your broader understanding of the issue. Remember, though, that being empathetic as a leader is not synonymous with being a therapist. Finding that right balance is hard, but important. Ensure you are not a venting outlet, but that your listening and investment help provide structure and a path forward. It’s not solving their problem for them, but helping to appropriately provide the “so what” and “now what” discussion for them. Simple questions like, “How can I be most helpful here,” or “what does success here look like for you” can help provide empathy and value a conversation.
  • Share What You Know…Maybe: Again, being empathetic does not mean we rush in as a hero to solve someone’s problem. We all have this inherent desire to because we believe that we have an accurate and better understanding of their situation and can provide the answer. I often refer to Bob Goff’s quote from his book, Love Does, stating that, “Most people need love and appreciation more than they need advice.” As we listen, we may feel the desire to inject, solve, and move on. I encourage us to curb that a little longer in the conversation. I always aim to defer the conversation to having the other person speak and share more if I can. However, if we do believe we’ve reached a necessary opportunity to share, consider some best ways to. For me, I try to resort to a story from a different case or a previous experience of mine. Rather than telling someone, “this worked for me so I think you should do this too,” a story can be a great way to share perspective in a less direct or imposing way. Through the story, I share the situation, the task or issue, the action I or others took, and the result. And being packaged as a story, it’s more compelling and engaging for the other person than merely lecturing them. But again, we don’t have to share. If we don’t have anything of value to add, don’t force it.

How to Develop It

If you’re better understanding empathy, why it’s important, and what it can look like in our behavior as leaders, you may still be wondering, “Now what? Where do I turn to start learning more and practicing?” So, let’s close by exploring a few ways that we can more deliberately develop empathy into our leadership style and behaviors.

First, a continued education on empathy is important. I encourage you to read more about it for self-study! My initial go-to recommendations are Daring Greatly and Dare to Lead, both by Brené Brown. Beyond that, empathy and leadership is a topic that I take time to read or listen about anytime I come across it like online articles, social media, podcasts, etc.

We can also reflect on and discuss it more. We can reflect on examples or experiences, either personally or with the help of a mentor or trusted peer coach. These methods of processing can help us identify our own ideas to ultimately develop our unique, authentic methods to being empathetic as a leader.

Then, we can deliberately practice in small ways. Maybe during your next scheduled developmental counseling conversation with someone on your team, you can focus on listening more actively, asking more questions to dive deeper, and be curious a little bit longer than normal. Doing this just a few additional minutes in a conversation can have tangible impacts on it.

Finally, seek feedback. At the end of that conversation where you were curious and questioning more deliberately, ask the person for feedback. Specifically, you can ask, “In what way(s) was I most helpful in this conversation,” or “How did this conversation land with you today?”

Conclusion

At the end of the day, empathy and leadership is not a convenience that we can consider only after we’ve achieved high standards or results. It’s not an obstacle to team performance, development, or accountability. It is uncomfortable but is an important space that leaders must fill to be engaged with and caring about our people. It’s our ability to identify, understand, and consider others – their feelings, circumstances, and experiences – so that we can be the best leader possible for them and make the best decisions feasible for our team.


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