Why empathy is essential for leaders

Empathy has always been an important leadership quality but following the pandemic it has become an essential skill in driving business results.

A global study by Qualtrics found 42% of people have experienced a decline in mental health since 2020. With significant upturns in people experiencing stress, anxiety and feeling emotionally exhausted. The way we work has been turned upside down and the boundaries that once existed between home and work have been blurred.

Great leadership requires a mix of all kinds of skills to create the right conditions for employee engagement and performance, however empathy might have been considered less important than some other skills prior to the pandemic. Not to be confused with sympathy, empathy is about identifying with others, understanding their feelings and then taking appropriate supportive action.

Now employees expect higher degrees of compassion and emotional support. As we go through tough times, struggle with burnout, or find it challenging to find happiness at work, empathy is a powerful antidote and can contribute to positive experiences for individuals and teams.

So how can you bring more empathy into your leadership? Here are our top tips:

1. Ask open questions and listen with eyes as well as ears

Being in the same room with someone and observing them has always been a powerful way to recognise when someone is struggling. However, if you are leading from home, it makes observing harder. This means leaders must really listen and observe body language. Asking open questions such as ‘tell me more’ during coaching conversations.

2. Recognise individual’s needs

Think back to Maslow’s Hierarchy of Needs and use this as a guide to address what individuals actually need from you as a leader. In the workplace, the most basic professional needs include:

3. Suspend judgment

Judgment is our own perception of something or someone. As humans we are inherently judgmental, but when trying to understand and empathise with others, it is important to try and suspend your own judgment of a person and situation. To practice empathy, we don’t need to see the person from our context or perspective, but their perspective only.

Research suggests that employees with empathic managers are more innovative and engaged in their work than employees with less empathic managers. If you need any support developing your managers leadership skills, we can help. Get in touch to find out about our leadership development programmes.

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