What is empathy?
Empathy is the capacity to understand the perspectives and feelings of others and to recognise the impact of your actions. It's the ability to put yourself in another person’s shoes and to imagine how they must be feeling and how that could be affecting their behaviour.
Why is empathy important for leaders?
An empathetic leader can look at strategies, decisions, and behaviours through the context of their team. Considering their feelings, their strengths, their flaws, their ambitions, and their life outside of the office. When you see the individual, you understand their value to your business and recognise the importance of helping them to develop and grow. When you demonstrate empathy you connect with your team, build trust, and better understand their challenges.
How to be a more empathetic leader
So how can we be more empathetic as leaders? Here are a few principles to follow.
It sounds simple, but when it comes to treating people like humans, it starts with being human ourselves. Even when we don't intend it, when you have the title of 'CEO', 'Leader' or 'Boss' it implies hierarchy and can be intimidating. It can take a bit of work to make sure you're approachable and can connect with people. Those bits of small talk that bookend meetings, zoom calls, days, weeks, try to make them more meaningful. Share your updates, your weekends and actively listen to your teams updates too.
To lead with empathy is to lead with flexibility. When you are willing and able to listen to others’ opinions and proposals and adapt your plans to accommodate them you show genuine understanding for their point of view. It could be validating an innovative new way of working they have developed, or it could be as simple as showing flexibility with holidays and working hours.
Give people a voice
An empathetic leader is also one that empowers their team and gives them a platform to be heard. Be open and inclusive when it comes to evaluation of the business and future strategy, encourage people to give feedback and share opinions, and ensure transparency about plans and processes.
Always ask yourself 'why?'
You're busy, a million things to do, but as an empathetic leader you don't judge actions and decisions on face value, you ask yourself 'why?'. Taking the time to think about why an action was taken, why a 'mistake' was made, why an outcome happened, not only shows empathy for the individual but gives you broader perspective that will help you choose the right way forward.
The importance of empathy in pandemic and post-pandemic times
In lots of ways the last year or so has been a leveller. In the early days of confusion and panic there were times when we all felt in the same boat. But it's not always the case, and especially as we begin to emerge from a crisis it's important to remember everyone will have had a unique experience. Physically, mentally, emotionally, and financially, the pandemic is likely to have affected our teams in lots of different ways. Impacts may not have been fully felt, not everyone will be on the same page when it comes to returning to 'normal' and flexibility and understanding will be more important than ever.
How do you make people feel?
Maya Angelou said “People will forget what you said, people will forget what you did, but people will never forget how you made them feel.”
As a leader it’s easy to focus on the actions, your strategy, goals, and processes, but without a unified, motivated, and empowered team it’s tough to make them happen. When we create an environment of empathy, we foster a sense of belonging and purpose. And when people feel safe and trusted it frees them to focus on their projects and objectives. Which in turn leads to better productivity and business success.
A skill not a trait
Empathy isn't about being a naturally nice person or putting others before yourself, it's a skill we can all work at. Understanding the environment around us and the team we work with can help us to make better decisions, inspire loyalty and unity in our team and achieve our goals.
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