Why is Empathy So Important to Your Success?

Last week, we wrote about our predictions on the must-have leadership skills in order to thrive this year. We strongly believe that it is the softer side of leadership that differentiates exceptional leaders vs. average ones. The hard skills matter, but what makes high-performing leaders stand out are the soft skills they embody such as emotional intelligence (EQ), self-awareness, compassion, and empathy.  

Understanding the importance of soft skills and improving them are two different things. Some leaders are troubled by an inability to transform their intellectual understanding of soft skills into behaviors and practices that guide their organizations forward.

Let’s explore empathy in greater detail. It’s a quality that most would agree is essential to positive human interactions, inside and outside of the workplace. However, leaders don’t always know how to tap into their empathy, nurture it and use it as a crucial part of their professional lives.

I want to share some advice for how leaders like you can improve your level of empathy, but first I think it is a good idea to explore why it is so important.

Empathy is defined as “the ability to understand and share the feelings of another.” Some people describe it as the ability to put oneself in another person’s shoes or position. Sounds simple, doesn’t it?

Unfortunately, when you look around our world today, it’s clear that empathy is a quality that’s sorely lacking. People seem to be becoming less and less empathetic in their interactions, which is sad. But it’s particularly sad when leaders fail to show a basic understanding of empathy when dealing with their people.

Empathy can improve your leadership effectiveness in a variety of ways:

  • It gives you the ability to know if you are truly reaching your people 
  • It offers you a sense of how your actions and decisions impact others
  • It helps you build teams who work more collaboratively together 
  • It gives you an extra spark of humanity that encourages loyalty and helps you inspire people to follow you
  • Empathy is highly valuable when it comes to negotiation because it helps you understand the other side’s wants and needs, giving you the ability to make decisions where everyone wins

I could go on at great length about the importance of empathy, but I think you get the point. The bottom line is that empathy cannot be considered a “nice to have”. It is an absolute must-have critical skill.

Why is Empathy So Difficult These Days?

Daniel Goleman, who coined the term “emotional intelligence,” wrote an article about why empathy is lacking so much in modern interactions.

I encourage you to read the piece yourself, but in the article, Goleman points out something I think is interesting: Our brains were designed for face-to-face interactions, which give us the opportunity to respond to communication in a much more empathetic manner.

When we talk with each other face to face, our brains take the words, expressions and context of our interactions into account in ways that inhibit negative impulses and improve the ability to understand.

When we interact with people in the online world, which has become our new mode of working and communicating, something is lost. We miss out on the cues that would otherwise trigger our empathy and therefore requires a whole new level of attention and tuning in to others when we are connecting virtually.

This manifests itself in a few ways in the workplace. How many times, for example, did you think someone was furious with you based on an email they sent, when in reality they felt no such emotion? How many times has someone misconstrued your tone in a text or some other online communication? It happens all the time, doesn’t it?

Our world has become somewhat impersonal because of working remotely which is why we strongly promote the use of video so you can see the person or people with whom you are interacting. In the absence of being able to see one another, our ability to empathize with others is marginalized. There are steps leaders can take to ensure they are creating a human connection and offer the opportunity to really connect and empathize with how others are feeling.

How Leaders Can Improve Their Level of Empathy

If you are ready to improve your leadership effectiveness by improving your empathy, here is what you can do:

Make Communications More Personal

Our digital communications don’t have to be free from empathy. You can coach your people to be more personable and understanding with each other when communicating, but I would also suggest increasing the personal nature of your online communications as well.

As we already mentioned, lead by example, and use video so you can see one another. Or pick up the phone vs. text messaging or emailing back and forth as it will allow you to tune into audible cues.  

I would also suggest that you establish rules of engagement for your meetings and make them as distraction-free as possible. People should be discouraged from using their devices and hiding behind the “black box” in your virtual meetings, and they should also refrain from multitasking during meetings and discussions.

Practice Being Present and Pay Attention

This is where a healthy sense of self-awareness comes in handy. The next time you’re interacting with someone, pay attention to how you’re paying attention to them. Are you just nodding and pretending to listen? Are you offering vague visual or audible cues? Are you actively listening and offering them 100% of your attention? Are you tuning out or simply waiting to speak?

If you are not present, in the moment and paying attention, people will pick up on that and what message does that send them? They will assume that they do not matter as they can plainly see your attention is elsewhere, so be very mindful and courteous by being present and engaged. If you do not pay attention and tune in, why should they?

Check Your Input

The things we read, watch and pay attention to influence our communications significantly. Therefore, when you only consume content that is focused on the head instead of the heart, you fail to exercise your empathy muscles. I recommend reading more personal stories and consuming content that describes emotions and relationships. Doing so will put you in a headspace that is much more conducive to empathy.

Be More Curious

Asking questions is a great way to get others to open up, and it shows that you are taking into account the human being that you are engaging with. The more you ask questions and demonstrate authentic curiosity, the more you will grow your sense of empathy. You will learn more in your interactions this way, and you will strengthen relationships with the people you depend on to make your organization succeed.

Are You in Need of an Empathy Boost?

Empathy is, without a doubt, one of the most essential soft skills for leaders to possess, and it can also be one of the most difficult to improve. The advice we provide here will put you on the right path. Remember to lead not only with your head but your heart if you want to strengthen your leadership skills and have a lasting impact.

If you are wondering how you can transform yourself into a more empathic leader, I would love to have a talk. Feel free to contact me at 1-855-871-3374 or send me an email at joanne.trotta@leadersedgeinc.ca. I’m looking forward to hearing from you!

Ready to partner with LeadersEdge to drive organizational performance?

connect with us