How Empathetic Leadership Can Transform Your Business

The old paradigm of leadership is struggling to adapt to the evolving demands of today. In the first part of this series, we discussed why the world needs a new leadership culture. Aside from the macro concerns such as political instability and misallocation of global resources, there are immediate negatives to your business when operating from the old model. Lack of engagement, less productivity, ethical issues, less innovation and talent drain are a few problems caused by traditional leadership. 

Let us then begin to construct a new paradigm – one which takes into account emerging trends, new research into our biology and a better understanding of the drawbacks of the traditional style.

 

The need for empathetic leaders

The fundamental difference between the old style of leadership and the new can be explained through the dual parts of the brain: the right side and the left. In other words, the contrast between the logical and the emotional; the mechanical and the human. Coming from a world of scarcity and low life expectancy, it makes sense that human behaviour was organised and led from a perspective of maximizing productive output.

However, we are now in an era where what will constitute productive output has evolved beyond physical labour. In this new economy, it is the intellectual and human capital of individuals and teams that are driving growth. These new types of workers aren’t easily replaced, and their needs are much more complicated. Here are some factors that represent a shift in culture:

 

  1. Higher consciousness – As people become more educated, they begin to reflect on aspects of their life such as fulfillment, purpose and impact. Their self and social awareness begins to rise and they want to feel that their work has meaning and the people around them are adding value to their lives.
  2. Higher expectations – People’s expectations are also increasing about what constitutes a good work environment. In the past, a job for life and security was seen as the main motivator. Now as people have higher self-esteem, they expect to find happiness in the workplace and will tolerate much less negativity. This is especially true for in demand individuals.
  3. Understanding of neuroscience – As we realised that people are more effective workers when they are free rather than enslaved, we have now realised that people are even more effective with the right leadership – under the guidance of someone who makes them feel happy, engaged and appreciated.

 

Understanding empathy

Empathy is a word that has a lot of misconceptions. The first point of confusion comes when it is paired with a semantically similar word: sympathy. Empathy is the ability to feel, understand and relate to a person’s:

 

  • Situation  Consider a situation that may be stressful such as during the hiring process. It is useful to understand how a situation can make somebody feel and behave. From this, we can use empathy to extend the benefit of the doubt.  
  • Emotions – If somebody is angry, a normal person may react by making moral judgements about that person’s character or becoming angry themselves. An empathetic person will be able to look at and speak to the root causes of their anger.
  • Thought processesWhen it comes to collaborating to find a solution to problems, it is important to understand the logic in another person’s argument and perspective. They may be right, or the solution can come from combining both yours and their thoughts.
  • Experiences – We have all lived different lives which influences how we present ourselves in the world. This diversity of experience provides constant learning opportunities for us all – but only if we care to access it.

 

Sympathy is closer to feeling sorry about someone’s plight, but not necessarily understanding it.  

Empathy represents a deeper understanding and connection between minds and goes beyond feelings of sorrow. It can also encompass many other factors such as anger, happiness, needs and wants.

 

The second misconception is that empathy is somehow a weak trait – something associated with people who perhaps are highly sensitive, emotional or overly caring about others and the world around them. Empathy is indeed associated with these types of people, but that does not mean that practicing it makes you a weak person. The reality is quite the opposite – empathy is a quality that makes you stronger. It is a trait that allows you to form stronger bonds between you, your team and themselves – the result being a more robust organization.

 

As a leader, it is your job to get the best out of the people that you lead. In order to effectively do that, you have to truly understand what makes them tick so that you can guide them more effectively. If you fail to understand the unique perspectives each individual is coming from – and how those perspectives interact with each other – you will not be able to move them in a way that will help both you and them do great things.

 

Benefits of empathetic leadership

Through empathy, we can solve the problems created by traditional leadership which leads to a host of benefits:

 

Higher retention

One of the biggest challenges entrepreneurs face is finding and keeping the right people. This problem is compounded by the two bottlenecks of a dwindling talent pool for high knowledge jobs and increasing competition from other firms. But one of the biggest reasons why people leave their jobs isn’t because of a competitive offer, but instead because they dislike the company’s leadership.

 

With empathetic leadership, you will be able to develop stronger bonds with your people by being able to relate to them on both a professional and personal level. The age of seeing your team as disposable workers who only come in to do a job is over. Now, if you want to retain the best people you have to start treating them like a family. Loyalty can’t always be bought with money, it is more about the deeper connection you have with them – something that can only be achieved through practicing empathy.

 

More engagement

To get the best out of your people they need to be engaged at work. This means they are consciously bringing their best selves to work each day. But not only that, true engagement means that even outside of work they may be thinking about how they can do better. Through the lens of the old model, this seems like an unrealistic dream. But we now know that people genuinely want to do work that they can put their all into – something with meaning.

 

Empathy creates a more engaged workforce through your leadership team’s ability to understand people’s true motivations. Once you understand what makes each person tick, you can then tie their motivations into other elements that create further engagement. For instance, if you know that an individual wants to see that their work is helping society, you can think of ways to tie their purpose in with your business outcomes. Similarly, you can create the right working environment that reduces their stress, increases their creativity and allows them to get into a state of flow.

 

More charismatic

What effects both retention and engagement is how likeable you as a leader are. You may be highly competent, but business is a human domain – the soft skills are just as important as the hard ones. Charisma is about the perception others have of you – one that attracts them to both your cause and who you are as a person. To be charismatic is to understand deeply how others are thinking and feeling about you at a given time – whether that is done consciously or unconsciously.

For instance, understanding how you are coming across when managing people is crucial. It is not just the bigger picture that matters, it’s the small details too. Do you appear open, friendly and warm? Are you actually listening to a person’s concerns or are you simply waiting for your turn to speak? People will realise when you genuinely care about what they are saying. When you are someone in a position of power who does this they will respect you even more.

 

Better decision making

When it comes to making decisions, particularly difficult ones that involve multiple stakeholders, there is a lot of room for errors to be made. Incomplete information, biases, emotions and faulty logic all play a role in bad decisions. Sometimes the situation can be avoided if you as a leader are able to understand all sides of the argument, which involves really listening to your people. This of course requires empathy – you need to be able to work your way through and juggle different perspectives and thought processes.

Sometimes, it may be the case that you are convinced of a particular course of action but there are others that need to be convinced. In this case, using brute force to overpower them may work but could also damage future relations and collaboration. The solution is using empathy to show that you really understand their perspective and even go so far as to explain why you understand that they feel so strongly. Sometimes, it is not about the other person wanting to be right, but more about that they feel they are listened to that can improve relations.

 

Permeates culture

People follow the standard that you set as a leader. Your character traits – and how you practice empathy – will be the ones replicated across the organization to become the company’s culture. This has a compounding effect as your people begin to practice empathy among each other.

  • More cohesion – As people are more in tune to the needs and mental states of each other, conflict will be reduced and bonds strengthened among your team.
  • Better collaboration – With the model of actively listening and trying to understand each other, your team will find more creative solutions by putting aside biases and taking into account more diverse perspectives.
  • More happiness – As relationships improve and people connect better, you will create a more happy workplace. The reduced stress from miscommunication and not feeling listened to will also contribute to this effect.
  • Manage global teams  When dealing with people from different culture it is even more important to practice empathy. What you understand as social norms may be completely different to them. It is on you as a leader to identify these differences.

 

Empathy for customers

Business is about identifying and serving the wants and needs of your customers. In order to do this continuously you need to have a deep understanding of who your customer is, what matters to them and how they think about your company. Through practicing empathetic leadership, you will find that both you and your team will be better able to understand hidden customer demands; leading to better product innovation, brand loyalty and increased sales.

 

In the next part of this series, we will begin to look at the challenges and opportunity costs of empathetic leadership.

About the author

Drs. Loes Fokker

Drs. Loes Fokker is Chief Culture Officer of the Argo Venture Studio. She evolves the consciousness of leaders and facilitates team-based growth that empowers groups to become high performance teams. 

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