Empathy is simply “putting yourself in the other person’s shoes,” a straightforward definition at best, to say the very least. People often mistake sympathy for empathy, but they are two different concepts with some similarities. Sympathy is the ability to care for and understand another person’s sufferings or experiences, while empathy is the ability to feel their experiences. For instance, when a mother sees her child quiet and sitting on the ground, she may know what the child is going through and feel the same emotions by some level of deep emotional connection. A manager who sees one of his staff going through some difficult moments and responds with the right words and acts of care can show sympathy and transcend to the level of empathy.
“Empathy begins with understanding life from another person’s perspective. Nobody has an objective experience of reality. It’s all through our own individual prisms.” — Sterling K. Brown.
Empathy strengthens the bond between people. Leaders need this trait more than ever in a fast-paced world where feelings and human affection are gradually eroding. Most organizations today are driven by numbers of how the organization can add money to their bottom-line. The push for profit aggrandizement pushes aside all empathy as many organizations become heavily transactional. To these organizations, empathy is a sign of weakness. To them, there is no time to feel the emotions of their workers. However, there is always time to peel layer upon layer of profits to add to the bottom-line.
Empathy is a rare quality to have in today’s organizations. It is the hallmark of nurturing and sustainable leadership that still drives organizations’ profitability but does so from a culture of care. When a leader exudes this quality, he or she gains the respect, trust, and cooperation of his followers. Connecting with your workforce from a position of empathy creates a motivational ambiance that propels them to do their very best for that leader; hence, increasing productivity. Thus, at the workplace, their staff will feel loved; at the home front, children will feel loved and cared for and, most importantly, understood. In this article, I shall be addressing ten reasons and then some on why empathy is a core leadership trait.
#1. Empathy Helps You Define Purpose
Think about a company that doesn’t know what its customers want. A company that doesn’t ask their customers questions. An organization that is not sensitive to its customers’ experiences but keeps making a particular product or offering a service that its consumers are no longer willing to buy. Think of a teacher who keeps on giving explanations in a classroom of students where many of them are complaining of ill health, and he or she does nothing about it. There will be a disconnection. And when this happens, it will affect the purpose or mission of such a leader. Empathy helps leaders define the purpose of their organization.
#2. Empathy Elicits Support
When a leader shows empathy, it is likely to elicit his/her followers’ support and compliance. One of the underlying needs of man is the need to socialize. Followers want to know that they matter to their leadership. Empathy towards followers instills a sense of belonging and inspires motivation. When you show care and concern for people, you win their loyalty, love, and support. Followers tend to become more committed when they have a leader who shows concern for their feelings, needs and wants. Their commitment begins to wane when leaders are just highly official, diplomatic, and no more. An empathetic leader will evoke the support of his/her followers.
#3. Empathy Puts You in the Present
Leaders must remind themselves that it is their responsibility to take care of their people and their priority. To get better at this, you must keep observing and then connecting with your people in the present. That is where the leader’s empathy comes to play in the way they relate with their followers. The leader must be in the present to understand the emotional status quo of their followers. He/she must be here in the now with them. What makes them excited? What makes them feel bad or experience stress? When you develop your level of empathy, your subconscious mind rises to the occasion, and you can sense when your people are satisfied or dissatisfied with you per time.
#4. Empathy Helps Leaders Develop Emotional Intelligence (EI)
With empathy in place, you can develop your Emotional Intelligence (EI), which helps you in your relationship with people. According to Kendra Cherry, Emotional Intelligence (EI) refers to perceiving, controlling, and evaluating emotions. Emotional Intelligence (EI) creates a cycle of benefits. It improves decision-making, decreasing occupational stress, reducing staff turnover, increasing personal well-being, increasing leadership ability, and increasing team performance. Hence, with EI, you can understand people by their body language and the things they say, and you can act accordingly in the present without throwing things out of control. Without emotional intelligence in place, you may be doing things wrong, and people would never want to connect with you transparently to tell you where you’re getting it wrong as a leader.
#5. Empathy Builds Your Communication Skills
Every leader must know how to communicate clearly and effectively. Without this ability in place, it becomes challenging to meet and understand the needs of your people. When you develop empathy, you know just the right words to use in your communication with people under your care and control as their leader. Empathy will help you in building effective and potent communication skills. Far often than none, most leaders have been known to use harsh words on their followers, thinking that this is the way to get results, but this doesn’t last long. Being autocratic in communication will eventually erode the trust that your followers have in you as a leader.
#6. Empathy Makes You Prioritize the Needful
What matters most in life isn’t always the results, as people are prone to thinking. Prioritizing the needful is knowing what matters most. To the leader, what matters most is building and sustaining a connection with followers. The need for success in a family shouldn’t drive the head of the family to search for money at all cost disregarding his people’s feelings in the process. The need for success shouldn’t make a corporate leader disregard quality conversation. He shouldn’t ignore the need for connection with his followers to focus on profit scalability as if that’s all that matters in the long run. People love a leader who cares, not one who is money-driven only.
#7. Empathy Makes You More Human
Scientists have proved scientifically that our brains’ mirror neurons help us feel intuitive and even experience others’ feelings. What this shows is that every human being has the capacity for empathy. We are not robots; we are designed to feel. We are made to have compassion towards others. We all can grow our empathy towards others. Regrettably, not all leaders have been able to harness this ability. Leaders must begin to do this to bring to the fore this human part of them so that their followers will feel loved and cared for. Empathy fosters the growth of our humanistic tendencies. This, in turn, encourages more excellent followership that leads to greater productivity.
#8. Empathy Reduces Conflict
When a leader develops his empathy, it’s way easier for him to relate with his people effectively. It makes him know how to lead people in a way that reduces the possibility of endless conflict. A leader with empathy will find it easy to mediate or intervene between one staff and another in a dispute to bring about an agreement or reconciliation. That is the power resident in empathy and why it is a core leadership trait. It is an excellent diffuser of tension in organizations. With this good quality in place, he doesn’t jump into taking sides but considers both parties’ feelings and then intervenes wisely.
#9. Empathy Ensures A Good Legacy
When a leader leads his people with empathy, it is easier for them to continue with this standard even in his absence. People would be too willing to continue doing the right thing even in the leader’s absence. But when a leader is concerned only about profits, compliance, results, or numbers going to the bottom line, such a leader always leaves such an environment more tense than average. When they leave, the standard may fall below standard because people may react against the status quo and how things have been done. Hence, empathy will help a leader leave a good legacy after their tenure as a leader is long gone.
#10. Empathy Leads To Better Growth Trajectory
When there is empathy in place, people comply with leadership more quickly and give their best toward the growth of an organization, a system, or even a family setting. Followers in an ambiance full of empathy flowing from the leadership don’t feel like a number. Followers feel more like a number that the organization can easily get rid of in organizations that lack empathy. Growth may seem unbridled because of transactional leadership, but it will only be a matter of time before it all comes tumbling down like Humpty-Dumpty, who sat on the wall of his ego and seeming accomplishment. For instance, a father who loves his family and understands how they feel will be leading them aright, and they will, in turn, do the right thing by contributing their best to the organization’s growth. The same thing applies too in organizations apart from the family setting. Empathy is a crucial factor for leaders in the world today.
#11. Empathy Improves You
Finally, empathy improves you as a person. When a leader has empathy, it leads to a better him or her. The import of this is that he/she keeps working on this ability in them. They keep on tweaking this advantage to near mastery. While mastery is relative, it is something that each leader can arrive at in their own time. Sometimes, you may not be adept at it, but this should not get you worried or worked up, neither should it make you abdicate thinking that empathy isn’t worth it. Compassion is worth it all and then some. It is a continuous improvement éclair that helps you transcend to the heights of a one-of-a-kind leadership status. There are cases where your followers may want to take undue advantage of you due to how you empathize. Nonetheless, keep empathizing and don’t look track of the result. Empathy improves you—your only limit is your mind.
For someone to develop their empathy, there are certain qualities that they must build within themselves. They must work on their endurance level and self-awareness. Going forward, leaders should begin to observe and listen carefully to their people to get feedbacks per time so that they don’t treat their people with indifference or a lack of empathy. Be adept in developing the art and science of listening. Conversation or free speech should never be one-way traffic.
Another thing leaders must do is to eschew working on assumptions. Stop playing ignorant and telling yourself you don’t know how people think or are oblivious to what they say. Instead, start to observe appropriately so you’d get better at observing people. Also, ask questions. When your followers act strangely and don’t understand what they are saying or trying to communicate through their language, ask them if they are okay or have any issues. Another thing is to avoid distractions and be in the present, as I explained previously. Be there for your people, be there for your followers.
Empathy is a core leadership trait that you mustn’t play with. Understand this and keep working on yourself as a leader. Listen when your people are trying to communicate something to you. Don’t be too busy getting results and adding zeroes to your bottom line that you forget to know how your people are doing—to understand how they truly feel. Don’t get distracted to the point you don’t have time for your followers. Parents should listen to their children always and know what they are saying all the time, likewise corporate leaders.
“An exchange of empathy provides an entry point for a lot of people to see what healing feels like.” — Tarana Burke.
Sometimes when leaders multitask, it takes their mind away from effective and deep relationships with the people under their care. Parents who are too busy doing so many things in the rat race of life may have little time for their children. This can affect the quality of the relationship they have with them. While multitasking in itself isn’t bad, it comes with its downsides. This calls for caution. However, in rare cases, there are leaders who, despite multitasking, can still empathize at a deep level with the people under their care. Sometimes, I wonder, how do they do it!