Of all the necessary skills and qualities that make a great leader, empathy is a critical leadership trait. Showing care and concern for others is key to improving overall team performance.
The problem, however, is that when striving to form high performing teams, empathy is a soft skill that is often overlooked and underestimated. In fact, a DDI study found that only 40% of frontline team leaders were proficient or strong in empathy.
But as the world becomes ever more VUCA (Volatile, Uncertain, Complex, Ambiguous), employees are facing higher levels of stress and anxiety, both professionally and personally.
And a team leader who shows empathy, will reap the rewards with a more engaged and higher-performing team.
But how does improving team empathy improve performance? And how can your managers improve their empathy skills?
The importance of having empathetic leaders
Empathy is central to how we function as social beings in our personal life and at work. But too often managers are preoccupied with tracking targets, meeting deadlines, making sure employees align with company culture, and upholding team values.
And when teams miss targets, or productivity drops, managers can forget that behind the team are people. And these people can have stressors in their personal life that affect their performance at work.
But when managers demonstrate empathy and find ways to show how much they value their team members, they enable teams to perform more highly.
In fact, empathetic leaders:
- Improve employee retention rates by decreasing employee turnover by 26%
- Increase employee productivity by 15%
- Increase customer satisfaction by 30%
- Increase collaboration by 29%
What does an empathetic leader look like?
To be a truly empathetic leader requires managers to demonstrate a level of understanding that requires them to dig a little deeper.
Being empathetic means actively listening and asking the right questions to get a better understanding of what is going on, not just with work tasks, but holistically.
How does empathy manifest in behavior?
Empathy is as simple as putting oneself in the shoes of another and feeling compassion for what it is they’re experiencing.
But—and this is important to remember—empathy is not sympathy.
- Empathy is where you work to feel and understand another’s feelings, attitudes and experiences.
- Sympathy is where you feel sorry for someone’s grief and troubles.
Empathy helps people feel included, sympathy helps them feel acknowledged.
The link between empathy and psychological safety
As Google found, the most important trait for predicting a team’s success is psychological safety. But for teams to feel safe enough to take risks and be vulnerable with one another, says Brené Brown in her book, Daring Greatly, there needs to be a high level of trust.
Here’s the thing—trust doesn’t magically happen between team members, it develops gradually over time.
So what can managers do to build levels of trust and in turn foster an environment of psychological safety?
They need to root themselves in empathy.
Leaders need to play their part in building trust in the team. They need to take steps to create connections between team members. They need to communicate candidly, actively listen to understand, accept team members’ actions, and demonstrate vulnerability.
When managers nail empathy, psychological safety will follow.
Examples of empathy in the workplace
Empathy can easily be demonstrated in the workplace daily, in many different ways, for example:
- Consideration of another’s perspective
- Equal participation in a group conversation
- Giving someone your full attention when they’re talking
- Not trying to fix feelings
- Avoiding passing quick judgment
- Be demonstrably compassionate
- Practice random acts of kindness
How to demonstrate empathetic leadership
While Simon Baron Cohen has shown emotional empathy to be a genetic trait, that doesn’t mean it can’t become a learned skill.
As Brené Brown says: "Empathy is a choice, and it’s a vulnerable one”.
So, how can leaders demonstrate empathetic leadership?
Below are six ways:
1. Have empathetic conversations
Begin the conversation with empathy:
- Help me understand...
- Tell me more...
- What’s important about…
If managers are having a difficult conversation, empathetic openers they might use can include:
- I have something I’d like to discuss with you that I think will help us work together more effectively.
- I’d like to talk about XYZ with you, but first I’d like to get your point of view/thoughts on it.
- I think we have different perceptions about XYZ. I’d like to hear your thoughts on this.
- I’d like to talk about XYZ. I think we may have different ideas about how to ABC.
- I’d like to see if we might reach a better understanding about XYZ. I really want to hear your thoughts about this and share my perspective as well.
Teach managers not to fear silence. For some people, silence can be uncomfortable and a short lull in the conversation can make managers feel like they need to fill the void. They should refrain from doing so.
When managers ask a difficult question they need to allow the other person time to think and respond.
2. Don't try to fix feelings
When we’re having difficult conversations, our natural instinct is to try and fix things, in particular, how people are feeling.
Don’t, says Brené Brown. Empathy isn’t about fixing, rarely does a response make things better, and besides, you can’t fix feelings.
Encourage managers to give the other person time and space to consider what they’re saying. Speak slowly, and pause regularly. This will afford them extra time to not be reactive, to find the right words to respond with, and can help defuse negative emotion. It will also indicate active listening.
3. Pay attention and actively listen
Empathetic leaders don’t just listen to hear, they listen to learn and understand.
Teach managers not just to listen to what is being said to them with their ears, but with their eyes, their heart, and their gut, to understand the entire message that is being communicated to them.
- Listen for key words and phrases, particularly if they’re being repeated.
- Think about how it is being said, not just what is being said.
- What is the speaker’s body language saying?
- Listen empathetically—don’t ask direct questions, don’t argue with what is being said, don’t dispute anything at this stage.
4. Don't interrupt
Studies have found collective intelligence in a team was only moderately correlated to the individual intelligence of group members.
In fact, it was much more closely correlated to the average social perceptiveness of group members (often higher with women), for example, the degree to which people participated equally in a group conversation.
When actively listening, empathetic leaders don’t interrupt the speaker, nor do they think about interrupting either. Interruptions disrupt the flow of what’s being said as well as affecting the listener’s ability to actively listen.
Because when someone is talking, they aren’t listening. And when they’re thinking of what they’re going to say, they aren’t paying attention to what is actually being said.
Managers should be mindful too of when they’re waiting to speak they don’t get impatient and try to move the conversation along, preventing the speaker from conveying their point.
Leaders who display empathy afford employees space to say what they have to say without interruptions.
5. Practice small acts of kindness
According to Stanford psychology professor Jamil Zaki, in an attempt to conserve energy for ourselves we tend to turn inwards when under pressure.
To prevent this, encourage your managers when they’re stressed or feeling like they don’t have any spare bandwidth, to spend a little time, energy or money on someone in their life.
- Send a text message of support when a team member is having a hard time.
- When running errands at lunchtime, pick up a team member’s favorite coffee.
“Building empathy isn’t necessarily about donating half of your salary to charity. It’s about the little things that we do each day. It’s about habits of mind.” - Jamil Zaki
6. Don't jump to conclusions and pass judgment
Even when what is being spoken contravenes their own beliefs, empathetic leaders don’t jump to conclusions and pass judgment. They aim to let go of their biases and allow themselves to be open to another’s perspective.
Empathetic leaders don’t look to categorize another’s feelings either rightly or wrongly. Instead they use them to view the world from the other person’ perspective. Doing so will afford them a better vantage point to understand what the person is experiencing, better enabling them to demonstrate empathy.
Empathetic leadership in a remote environment
The sort of personal insights that managers used to glean around the watercooler are much harder to pick up when everyone is remote, or hybrid working with limited in-person interactions.
The biggest challenge to demonstrating empathy when everyone works remotely is missing verbal and physical clues. People have a lot going on in their personal lives that managers might not be privy to because they only communicate remotely.
Leading with empathy in a remote or hybrid environment isn’t without its challenges, but that’s not to say it can’t be done.
Demonstrating empathy remotely can be as simple as scheduling more frequent one-to-ones and spending the first five-10 minutes of each 30 minute meeting asking questions to better understand any external influences in team members’ personal lives that might be affecting their performance at work.
How Saberr can help managers develop empathy
To truly lead with empathy, managers are required to practice it frequently, to make mistakes, and to learn from them. Saberr supports this in multiple ways.
To start with, we can run bespoke leadership development programs that focus on helping managers develop the skills needed for success. This includes—but is certainly not limited to—soft skills such as empathy.
Our leadership programs aren’t just limited to face-to-face coaching sessions or masterclasses though. In fact, we also help reinforce these learnings through the use of our digital coaching platform. More specifically, we provide your managers with continuous learning opportunities, while delivering timely nudges and contextually relevant learning resources at the precise moments they’re needed.
In turn, we help them develop on-the-job and in the flow of their day-to-day work, ensuring they’re developing the habits needed to lead highly effective teams.
If you'd like to learn more about how we can support your managers in developing the right skills and behaviors, have a watch of this. Alternatively, book in for a chat at a time that suits you.