Try Empathy – It Works
Being a good listener is necessary for being an empathetic leader: the second important leadership characteristic that we want to discuss this month. Many people confuse empathy with sympathy, but they are truly different. It is not surprising that empathy is important to leadership when you think of its origin. Empathy comes from the Greek term empatheia which means passion. How many times have you heard or said that you should have passion for your work and you should do something for which you are passionate? Empathy is recognizing and understanding the feelings, motives, and situations of others and being sensitive to these. Empathy is critical to great leadership because it helps you develop trust. When you use your empathic leader skills, it helps you understand why people react to situations, and you are more aware of others’ feelings and how their feelings impact their perceptions.
Are you now starting to get why empathy is important to being a leader in your business? In so much of what you do as managers, understanding the “why” is so important. We can much more appropriately respond to a situation if we truly understand the “why” and empathy helps us do this. Being empathic does not necessarily mean that we have to agree with the other person and/or their perception of a situation. It merely means that we recognize and appreciate the feelings of others and their view and perspective; we understand the needs of others and let them know that we do. Doing so can help you as a leader in several other ways. When you use empathy in your management, you help others feel safe with failures and errors because they feel that they will not simply be blamed; they feel that you will understand. When you understand your employees better, you are better able to help those who are struggling to improve their performance and you are better able to help those that excel stretch themselves to continue their own professional growth.
Empathy, while recognized as important is not always exhibited and encouraged in the workplace. Why? For one, expression of emotion in the workplace can still be regarded as a weakness. It is definitely a fine line to walk. Humans are complicated creatures and correctly understanding others and their perceptions can take time and be difficult. Expressing empathy also involves considering others before yourself, which in today’s extremely competitive business environment can certainly be challenging to do and one may wonder if putting others before self will really be a wise move. However, a survey of 2,405 managers and 2,595 non-managers conducted by the Institute of Leadership and Management found that respondent employees indicated greater levels of trust in CEOs for whom they believed exhibited greater levels of empathy. So, exhibiting empathy helps managers develop trust between them and their employees, and trust can also be a critical element to performance and business success.
Some Presidential Examples
Empathy can be potentially challenging to understand and utilize, especially if it does not come as naturally to you as perhaps some other skills. It is interesting to see examples of empathy and ratings of empathy in well-recognized leadership personalities, for example some of the Presidents of the United States. Author Colleen Shogan of the Congressional Research Service provides us some excellent examples and comparisons and contrasts of models of empathy used by Presidents Abraham Lincoln, Bill Clinton, and George W. Bush. Lincoln is considered to have possessed a high capacity for empathy and arguably his greatest use and impact of it came in his opinion and actions toward slavery. Lincoln also tried to understand the slave owners and understand their point of view. Lincoln also used empathy to stroke egos and gain political allies by using empathy to turn opponents into supporters, and he used empathy to identity persuasive emotional arguments. Lincoln is generally considered to have exhibited and used wise and appropriate levels of empathy.