Empathy is the ability to understand and share the feelings of others. Over the last two years the importance of leading with empathy has become a central talking point in workforce management. What is empathy, and why should an empathic mindset drive leadership in 2022?
What is an empathic mindset?
Empathy can be defined as the ability to detect and understand other people’s feelings and is fundamental in forming productive relationships.
- connect with others to identify and understand their thoughts, perspectives, and emotions; and
- demonstrate that understanding with intention, care, and concern.
An empathic leader is a leader who demonstrates care, concern, and understanding for employees’ life circumstances. More than just sympathy, empathy involves being able to put yourself in someone else’s shoes in an attempt to understand their situation, emotions, ideas and opinions. By cultivating an empathic mindset, empathic leaders and managers demonstrate the ability to foster inclusion and to respect employees’ life and work needs.
An empathic workplace is, therefore, a work environment where empathy skills are learned and harnessed in order to create resilient and inclusive workplace cultures where colleagues feel bonded together and employees feel understood and heard.
But why has empathy become such a central feature of our current work order?
The importance of empathy in the workplace
Before COVID-19, according to the World Economic Forum, many employers saw empathy as a “nice to have”, rather than as a tool to expedite growth. The global pandemic pushed both employers and employees to their limits. Sudden financial pressures, fears about job security and disruptions to work-life-balance were followed by stress and burnout, which led to many voluntary resignations across the world coupled with the reimagining of the value of employment. In the wake of this “great resignation”, the responsibility for managing burnout shifted away from the individual and towards the organisation and its leadership. Within this changing environment organisations have had to manage uncertainty from many angles. One area of concern has been the question of bolstering innovation and work engagement while attracting and retaining top talent.
Although it is often underestimated as a business skill, research shows that empathy is essential to success in the future of work. As noted by Inam ur Rahman:
The pandemic defied every management and organizational system, pushing everyone to their limits, until a transition toward agile, ever-evolving methods began to emerge… Perhaps the most telling realization was that the key to survival in any catastrophe is empathy.
According to the World Economic Forum, empathy can help establish a sense of belonging for employees by reinforcing the belief that their perspectives matter and their voices are heard. Research by global non-profit Catalyst has evinced that empathic leadership can be a force in driving productivity through better work-life integration and the cultivation of positive work experiences. There is a “clear path from senior leadership and manager empathy to enhanced employee innovation and work engagement”, writes Tara van Bommel. Their survey of nearly 900 US employees working across industries demonstrated the following key findings related to innovation and work engagement:
- 61% of people with highly empathic senior leaders reported often or always being innovative at work, compared to only 13% of people with less empathic senior leaders.
- 76%of people with highly empathic senior leaders reported often or always being engaged, compared to only 32% of people with less empathic senior leaders.
However, a workplace designed according to an empathic mindset is not only geared towards innovation and work engagement. According to a 2017 Businessolver survey of 1,128 employees, six out of ten employees said that they would take slightly less pay for an empathetic employer, and 77% would even work longer hours. Empathic-minded organisations, that instil the values of empathy in their workplace design, therefore also establish employment environments that serve to attract and retain talent required to out-perform their competition.
As noted by Dr Adam Waytz:
People want to be treated as more than the product of their labour, or as a means to an end, the company’s bottom line … [I]’ve found empathy is so important. It helps leaders connect with their employees on a human level that extends beyond their day-to-day jobs, and it conveys to employees how their work can benefit others.
With the benefits clear, how can you go about cultivating empathic leadership in your organisation?
Four steps towards leading with empathy
Departmental and organisational role models set the tone for workplace culture and drive policies and strategy. Although empathic leadership can take many shapes and forms, it is something that can be developed, promoted and taught.
As a starting point, the Centre for Creative Leadership recommends that leaders take the following four steps to demonstrate greater empathy in the workplace:
1. Identify burnout
Workplace burnout is considered profound enough to be included in the International Classification of Diseases by the World Health Organization, which defines it as “a syndrome conceptualized as resulting from chronic workplace stress that has not been successfully managed”. When burnout occurs, employee productivity, engagement, and organisational commitment can plummet. Empathic managers are able to recognise signs of overwork by taking the time to engage with their team members, gauge how they are handling their current workload, and develop contingencies to support the wellbeing of the team.
2. Demonstrate sincerity
According to van Bommel, it is hard for employees to feel a sense of belonging at work and be authentic when they don’t feel that their life circumstances are valued and respected by their company. Empathic leadership requires a sincere attempt at understanding the unique needs and goals of each team member. A leader that displays a sincere interest in each team member’s interests, capabilities and wellbeing will be rewarded with a more engaged workforce that is willing to go the extra mile for them.
3. Recognise work-life challenges
An empathic mindset understands that the blurring of lines between personal life and work-life is inevitable. Stress and burnout result from more than just an overload of work. In order to foster an empathic work environment, leaders need to prioritise employee mental health and give employees space to be heard. Keep lines of communication open and encourage transparency so as to foster the psychological safety that can help team members feel comfortable to share when necessary.
4. Cultivate compassion
Empathic leadership means having the ability to understand the needs of others and being aware of their feelings. In other words, compassion is central to the empathic mindset. Empathic leadership is a tool that managers can use to establish real bonds with those they lead. Compassion involves moving beyond standard-issue values statements by allowing time for compassionate reflection and response. It is therefore beneficial to identify, train and support managers who care about how others feel, and are able to consider the effects business decisions have on employees, customers, and communities.
Gain competitive advantage in the new year
As we look forward to a new year, we need to remain cognisant of the enduring changes the last two years have brought to the way we work. For businesses to navigate a still treacherous terrain, they need to attract, identify and retain the right talent to help steer the ship and drive productivity. Instilling an empathic mindset in your organisation’s leadership and allowing these values to filter through the organisation could be the first step in gaining a competitive advantage in the new year.
With guidance, knowledge and experiential practice, leaders can learn these soft skills and become better at practising empathic behaviours to the benefit of your bottom line.