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Implementing Empathetic Leadership

Once you have spent time learning about the benefits of empathetic leadership you need to work towards implementation. Like with other cultural and leadership changes, the shift starts mentally and is reinforced by the actions you take on a daily basis.


Empathy is learnable


Before you even think about implementing empathy in your organization, you need to understand that empathy is learnable. It takes two forms: it is both a skill that is practiced and also a personality trait. In this sense, you can exercise empathy or you can be an empathetic individual. If you wouldn’t traditionally describe yourself in this way then it is more realistic to approach empathy as another management tool – something similar to conflict management or goal setting.


The great thing about learning empathy is that it is a skill that is developed in the mind. You can be practicing empathy in your head when you are trying to interpret what another person’s saying – all without them knowing so. In this way, you can develop your ability to empathize with people overtime – slowly building up a framework of how best to relate to your people. Then when the time comes for more overt transformation you will already be well versed in the skill.


But just having empathy isn’t enough – the benefits of this skill are not only about making better decisions from understanding people more, but also the fact that the people you are empathizing with recognize that you are doing so. In other words, you have to actively show that you are practicing empathy to get a large amount of its effect. As mentioned previously, much of these effects revolve around motivating, engaging and making your people feel more connected to you.


10 tips to practice empathy


Learn to listen and read nonverbal cues

Empathy is a communicative process, one which relies heavily on you interpreting the messages of the other person. To achieve this, you need to become a listener who is active and really trying to understand the meaning of what the other person is saying. You also need to train yourself to pick up on non-verbal cues such as gestures, eye contact and expressions.


Be vulnerable and authentic

To truly understand another person means that there has to be an element of trust between the two of you. People may say and act in a certain way, but there is no way we can understand their true motivations. The closest way we can do this is by creating an environment where they feel safe and can open up – and that starts with you as a leader being vulnerable first.


Don’t interrupt

As mentioned, an important part of empathy is the feeling that somebody is being understood. Depending on our personalities, position or whether we feel strongly about something, we often have the tendency to interrupt when other people are speaking. This sends the message that you aren’t taking the time to truly listen to them – breaking the trust you need for a deeper connection.


Be fully present

Our minds are often everywhere – we are constantly checking our phones or wondering about other things. This effect is prominent in business too – particularly for leaders who have multiple concerns. But when you make the effort to focus intensely on the person you are speaking to you send the message that they are important to you. It also helps you pick up on subtle things that you may have missed otherwise.


Ask clarifying questions

Even if you understood what somebody has said, asking clarifying questions shows that you are engaged and have actually listened to them. This technique will also help you uncover information that may not have been volunteered, helping you to get to the root of a topic.


Mirror and repeat

Mirroring is a technique that has been proven to strengthen connections between people. We see this type of behaviour with babies who smile when we smile. When you mirror someone through their expressions or emotions, you demonstrate to them that you are in tune with how they feel. Combine this with repeating what they say in your own words and you have a powerful starting point for empathy.


Dont judge, be open

When you are trying to understand and feel as somebody else, you may run up against things that you feel are unrelatable. For instance, if somebody has done you wrong, your personal emotions or biases may get in the way of empathy. It is important then to always have an open mind and not be judgemental while you are trying to empathize. If judgement is needed, save it for afterwards.


Be genuinely curious

At the start, empathy can feel like work. You have to use your mental resources to figure out how somebody thinks and feels. If you want to be able to do this consistently you have to change how you think about your people. You need to see your people as exciting individuals with unique perspectives, feelings, ideas and stories. Each time you are empathizing with them you are uncovering learning experiences that will help you grow.


Take ownership of other people’s problems

As the leader, the problem your people are having are inevitably your problems too. Even problems not directly related to work can spill over and effect performance. In this case, it makes sense to reframe the situation and assume their problems as your own. By doing so, you will come from a place that is authentic  as you have tied their situation directly with your own.


Reflect and be self-aware

Empathy isn’t something that just happens in the moment. Whenever you have spent time trying to empathize with someone, it is important to reflect on what you have learned so that you can create actionable insights. It is useful to even tell the person that you will reflect on what was said and return soon to them with new thoughts. Likewise, you should also reflect on how you are coming across and what you can do to be a more empathetic leader.


5 Practical steps to empathetic leadership


1. Create a persona

A powerful technique used in sales is to create a persona of your target customer. This includes information about their jobs, personal life, motivations, needs and background. The idea is to get a more clear understanding of the person you are trying to influence.


We can borrow this idea and apply it to all the people in your organization who you need to empathize with. Create personas of all the management teams and the people that you work with regularly. Try to think about their individual story, their backgrounds, perspectives, job functions and more. Think about what their aspirations may be, their fears, worries and stresses.


It will be unlikely that you get it right on the time, but see it as a work in progress that you continuously update as you learn more about the person. Eventually you can even share it with them to see if it’s accurate – they will appreciate the effort you have made to try to understand them.


2. Meet with each person

Focused attention is one of the best ways to make somebody feel that they are appreciated. It is even better if you do it for no other reason but to get to know them. Dedicate 15 minutes a few times a week to having a face to face chat with people in your organization. The chat should just be around getting to know them better, which could include both work and personal conversations.


Even if you are busy and results orientated think of it like this: you can learn many things about your organization through these conversations. Word will also spread that you are a leader who cares for and sees your people as individuals, leading to greater engagement.


3. A day in the life

There is an old saying to the effect of to know someone is to first walk in their shoes. You can take this concept and apply it to your goals with empathy. Instead of being distant from what’s happening on the ground, take time to engage with all members of your team as they are doing their work – especially new and lower level employees.


If you want to take this a step further, you can do a day in the life of one of your team members. In reality, this will likely be more akin to 10 minutes of shadowing, but you will gain real insight into the work they are doing and how they think about their jobs. If you have time to get involved and participate in different activities that’s a step better which helps create greater camaraderie among your team.


4. Surround yourself with other empathetic people

Practicing the skill is one thing, but if you want empathy to be a part of you it is useful to rub shoulders with more empathetic people. Ideally these are other business leaders who you can relate to, but it doesn’t have to be. Empathetic individuals can be found in a variety of people oriented professions including sales, care work, teaching and nursing. It’s important to note again the difference between the skill and the personality trait. You will need to find people who genuinely care and are curious about understanding others.


5. Make it a goal

In order to fully adopt empathetic leadership you need to make it a goal for yourself. Like other organizational and cultural change, you need to see this change as something that is directly related to the bottom line. It is easy to lose sight of the benefits of ‘soft’ skills when it comes to more tangible change such as financing or technology.


To ensure implementation, you need to have an honest conversation about it with your people. Share the fact that you are trying to bring empathy into the organization and ask them to hold you accountable to that. In the same vein, you should also use this opportunity to ask for empathy from others – both from your management teams and the employees themselves. Make it a mission that together as an organization you will make the effort to understand and relate to each other better.


But empathetic leadership comes with its own set of challenges. Although empathy can help you uncover important information, it doesn’t tell you what to do with it. In the next section, we will take a look at the challenges this new trend poses and the opportunity costs of not taking it seriously.

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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