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Leadership Tool: Empathy in the Workplace

As American actor Max Carver says, “Empathy is the starting point for creating a community and taking action. It’s the impetus for creating change.” I have always strongly believed that empathy drives leadership as opposed to the traditional viewpoint that stated that businesses had to be driven at any cost even if that involved being hard on employees to get the job done. Things are not the same today. Managers need to do lot more than just give orders, they have to inspire to derive the best performance at workplace, which is linked to empathy.

It is a manager’s utmost responsibility to create a work environment that helps employees believe that they are wanted and they belong to the group. You are an empathetic human, if you can put yourself in another person’s shoes to understand how they feel, or show the will to listen to the other person and respond with insight and awareness. Empathy can be termed as an emotional skill you need to understand and practice if you are going to be a great leader.

Empathic emotion and performance

Empathy enables those who possess it to see the world through the other’s eyes and understand their unique perspectives. Though empathy is almost universally seen as desirable, it is not distributed evenly among all levels of management. According to an unpublished survey of graduates over the past 10 years who now occupy professional positions, empathy is most lacking among middle managers and senior executives: the very people who need it most because their actions affect such large numbers of people. There is sufficient data that suggests that all things remaining equal, leaders who have emotional abilities have better business results.

Keys to empathy are:

  • Put yourself in the other person’s shoes.
  • Listen to their words and tone of voice, and watch their body language. Try to understand what they are feeling.
  • Put their feelings into words. Keep it simple and use your own words.
  • Avoid repeating exactly what the other person has said.
  • Do not worry about being exactly right. The important thing is to listen closely and show that you are trying to understand.
  • Give the person a chance to respond to your comments.

A critical skill for effective leadership for one, simple reason, trust. If your employees don’t trust you, you are not a leader; you are just a manager. A key component for building trust with others is through empathy. When you show that you are aware of your employees’ feelings and appreciate those feelings, even when you don’t agree with them, it builds trust. The employee has faith that you will at least take their feelings into consideration.

You can then use this understanding of their feelings to then give your employees what they need to succeed, further strengthening your relationship, increasing collaboration and improving productivity. Without empathy, your employees will always have their guards up. They will always feel like they have to look out for their own emotional interest. While with an empathetic leader, the employee knows that their feelings will never be simply overlooked or ignored.

To summarize, being empathetic is not always easy. You may need to work hard to understand someone who is fundamentally different from you, confront negative feelings you have about that person, or address your fear that your empathy will send false signals. Get to know your co-workers and interact with them on regular basis, to get used to the process.

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