A lot of leaders believe they’re empathetic and compassionate towards the team without really knowing what that means, or gathering feedback on their behaviour or actions.
To properly understand and improve our leadership skills, let’s take a look at the topics below:
- Defining empathy and sympathy
- Why empathy is important in the workplace: 6 benefits
- The 5 traits of an empathetic leader
- Becoming more empathetic
- Empathy fatigue
Defining empathy and sympathy
The difference between empathy and sympathy is slight, but important. Although they are similar and sit within the same family of compassion, there are some clear and important differences to understand before learning how empathy can help us be better leaders and supporters.
Let’s take a look at some official definitions of these emotions to properly understand.
According to Cambridge dictionary:
Empathy – is the ability to understand other people’s emotions by imagining what it would be like to be in that individual’s position. People who are very empathetic often say they can experience the same emotions as others.
Sympathy – is a feeling of support and agreement. Sympathy is an understanding of how someone could be feeling a certain way, but without associating with that emotion.
Literally speaking, empathy is the ability to “feel into” another person’s emotions.
But, importantly, empathy isn’t all about the ability to feel the same emotions as someone else. Pain is personal, for example, and no one will ever fully understand how another human being is feeling.
Empathy is more about understanding who that person is, where they have come from, and using that knowledge to try to connect with their feelings. Empathy is about being in sync with how someone is feeling, and less about experiencing the same feelings.
What does being an empathetic leader mean?
An empathetic leader will care about their team members as individual human beings, who have a life, passions, and interests outside their day-to-day job. They don’t treat their employees like numbers, but as individuals.
An empathetic leader will also take a genuine interest in their team members’ lives and the challenges they face, either personally or professionally. They should support the personal and professional growth of their team and understand that to be happy, people need space and opportunity.
A good, empathetic leader will be understanding of personal problems like child-care issues, grieving, necessary travel, or illness—both physical and mental.
After speaking with a manager or a leader, the team should be left with a feeling of safety, compassion, understanding, encouragement, and support. People that work in the organisation should feel like they can go to their leader with issues or problems and have someone supportive to listen.
Leaders and team members should especially feel safe around each other and comfortable making mistakes. Allowing the team to go ahead with more adventurous ideas means more failures, but with failing comes learning, and with learning comes growth.
There are three different types of empathy traits that a leader can practice:
Emotional – This is the most well known version of empathy, and literally means that you can feel another person’s emotions as if they are contagious.
Cognitive – This can be looked at as a perspective approach, and is about knowing how the other person is feeling without necessarily experiencing their emotions.
Compassionate – When we experience empathy in a compassionate way we firstly understand or experience how someone is feeling, and then we feel compelled to help if possible, or give advice.
Of course, as a leader, you can’t be expected to experience every person’s emotions, especially as this can lead to empathetic fatigue (discussed further below). So, compassionate empathy – a balance between understanding how someone is feeling, or what they might be going through, along with making an effort to do something to help or give advice – is the perfect balance.
Why empathy is important in the workplace: 6 benefits
The benefits of being an empathetic, compassionate human being are quite obvious. But, why would it be important for bosses and leaders to be outwardly empathetic?
Empathy is an essential part of building trusting, honest, and open relationships. When someone feels seen and heard by their superiors and managers, they will find it easier to trust faster, which leads to stronger working relationships.
It might be surprising to know that being a more compassionate boss can do wonders for much more than just your immediate team, but for the growth and success of your business too.
Feelings of support, being cared for, simply being asked questions and having the feeling that your time and energy is actually valued at work can increase employee retention dramatically. It can also increase motivation as:
- Employees will be more willing to finish that project after hours
- They won’t see you as an authority, but as an equal, making the flow of information easier.
This differs from when a leader acts in authority, which makes team members feel much less valued because they don’t have the opportunity to be involved in company or team decisions. This is called authoritarian leadership and can be seen as quite a traditional approach.
Benefits of working in an empathetic environment
We’ve spoken briefly already about how being a more empathetic leader can benefit more than your team feeling accepted and trusted.
Knowing that your manager understands who you are, is approachable, and easy to talk to about more difficult subjects, will have a hugely positive impact on the entire organisation.
Here are six benefits of working in an empathetic environment:
Improves productivity – When people join an organisation full of open, honest, hard-working individuals it promotes a high expectation for all team members. Wanting to work for your employer means wanting to succeed and do the best work possible. They’ll be encouraged from receiving praise and recognition, leading to better productivity.
Boosts growth – People that are great communicators, fit in with the rest of the team, are motivated, creative, and hard-working can be exceptionally difficult to find and hire. It’s also a two-way street. It’s not just about the organisation finding the perfect candidate, but also about how the candidate feels about the company and its people. Leaders who are compassionate and promote empathy are more likely to attract the best talent. This means having stronger hires, leading to better productivity and faster growth.
Easier collaboration – People have a tendency to work harder if they’re made aware of the value that their work has for the rest of the organisation. Work is work, but it’s the people in the team that make the work all the more fun. Being empathetic encompasses the expression of appreciation along with support and makes people feel valued, important, and needed. When this happens, teamwork and cross collaboration will be smoother.
Improves employer branding – People talk! Especially in this digital age, full of review sites and opportunities for potential hires to find out what it’s really like to work with a company before they sign the contract. Hearing that your organisation’s leader is empathetic, compassionate, and understanding is great for employer branding. It will make it much easier for someone to get on board and be able to visualise themselves working within the team.
Improves employee retention – Of course, working with someone that ticks off a lot of the list above makes it easier to go to work every day. You’ll find that team members are happier for longer, and are much less likely to find a position at a different company while they’re happy with the guidance and support provided by their current managers.
Knowledge sharing – As people feel respected, and they can see that their opinions are valued, teams will find it much more beneficial to share what they’ve learnt. As discussed above, having an empathetic influence over the organisation makes it easier for teams to collaborate, as well as an increase in productivity. This will lead to a stronger learning culture, which means a smarter, more experienced team.
Let’s take a look at the traits of an empathetic leader to better understand if your manager already has these qualities, or if they’re something to improve.
The 5 traits of an empathetic leader
You now know how your company can benefit from empathetic leadership. So, what specific traits should you have as an empathetic leader to be successful and reap those benefits?
An aim of being a more empathetic leader should be to make sure that anyone feels comfortable coming to you to voice any opinions or concerns. Your team shouldn’t feel like if they bring something up that you simply won’t listen, or that you’ll become defensive or argumentative rather than open and receptive to what they have to say.
Doing so will create a large divide between leaders and team members, leading to feelings of frustration. When people feel that their voices aren’t being heard, they tend to start to feel as if they are ‘just a number’, instead of a valued and important team member.
Compassion is, of course, when someone is caring and understanding towards other people. When it comes to a professional setting, compassion is about the understanding that your team has lives and experiences outside the office. They may struggle with difficult or extremely busy and stressful periods during their time working with you.
During those difficult, unavoidable periods, it’s such a great support and lift to know that the people around you at work are supportive and understanding. If people at work seem to not care, and they’re not used to giving people a break, it will add to the stress and can lead to severe burnout.
- Involves people in the conversation
Asking for people’s opinions with polls, surveys, or just a quick chat about something over coffee will make people feel included, important, and valued.
Most problems at work come from when people feel the opposite of this. Most people want to be included and be given responsibility, succeed and do well, so excluding people will only make them feel undervalued.
Flexibility is an important part of great leadership skills and is linked to compassion. Understanding that individuals all work differently is a good first step. If your organisation is open to home working, and it doesn’t affect quality of work, then don’t limit them to how often they can work remotely.
- Able to motivate and empower others organically
People are intuitive. If you force motivation, then people will be able to feel that. As a leader, if you’re feeling uninspired, talk to your team about it, they’ll most likely be able to help get you back to normal. This honesty will also help your team feel valued and trusted.
When you’re in a more positive and motivating mood, share it! Your emotions are much more relatable than you think, and the motivation you project will be infectious.
Becoming more empathetic
Some people are naturally more empathetic than others. But, the good news is that it can be learned, and can definitely be improved, with awareness and proactive practice.
Now we know the benefits that being empathetic can have on the organisation, and the traits needed to optimise productivity, teamwork, and employee happiness, we can take a look at how we can practice empathy daily.
Take care of yourself first – The leader within your organisation will likely be a huge influence on the rest of your employees’ mood, motivation, and passion. Having a positive attitude will filter down from the top and affect each manager, and therefore the individuals in their teams. If the manager or leader isn’t looking after themselves, then this will also filter down, making it difficult for others to stay healthy and happy.
Be the example – Become the change you want to see! Whether as a team lead, a manager, or someone in a C-level position, your influence is huge. Stay open and honest, show up with a lot of energy and genuine passion. The rest of the team will feed off this and feel more motivated and upbeat.
When someone needs help, reach out to them, and when someone wants to have a difficult conversation, stay present and be understanding. Another way to set great examples is to organise plenty of team building activities and get involved with every team member.
Becoming aware – Take notice of the people around you. Ask yourself if they seem to have less energy than usual, or if they’re more on the quiet side. Maybe they’re not as motivated as they usually are, or they’re not being as proactive in workshops or meetings. When you notice anything like this, it doesn’t hurt to ask them privately if everything is OK.
Even if there’s nothing that they want to talk about, the act of asking will mean a great deal and give them confidence in coming to their manager if something does ever happen. If there is something wrong, then they are being given the opportunity to voice their opinions. Being aware and listening can do a world of good.
Active listening – Listening and asking questions doesn’t just mean noticing the negative things that your team might need a conversation about. It’s also about actively listening to the professional needs of your team.
Let’s say you have a team member that is interested in learning more about front-end development, which would also be beneficial to their current position. Why not suggest them some reading materials, or let them sit in on some relevant meetings, so they can observe and learn.
Be aware of red flags – Being intuitive is a big part of being a leader. Part of your job is to consistently assess the state of each team and notice if any red flags are coming up.
Instead of noticing that someone isn’t communicating very well and just adding that to their feedback sheet, an empathetic leader would voice their concerns in a sensitive way and give some helpful advice. For bonus points, you can follow up on the conversation later to make sure everything was understood
Don’t be afraid to be the student – Being honest about the things that you still need to learn can put you in a vulnerable position, but this is a good thing. Admitting that you don’t know something, or asking for help from other team members will show that you’re a human being, just like the rest of the team. They’ll also be more likely to come to you with questions when they can see you’re not a robot-leader.
Encourage quiet voices – The more introverted people in your organisation may find it a little more difficult to speak up and give their opinions. Especially towards people in a higher position, or around extroverts.
To combat this and make sure everyone feels included, direct some questions to those quieter voices. They will appreciate the fact that you value their opinions and ideas.
Tip: Make sure to lead these conversations with open questions, like ‘how do you think we should improve this landing page?’ or ‘which topics would you like to be responsible for in the next month?’.
Being overly empathetic can be exhausting, so it’s important to remember to not get too involved with the emotions that another person may be experiencing. The point of being an empathetic leader is to be very approachable, encouraging, and supportive. But don’t get carried away with the specific feelings and emotions. Instead focus on the understanding of those emotions.
When someone is feeling frustrated, or in a negative place, it can be difficult to focus on solutions instead of only focusing on the problems. Being an empathetic leader means knowing what somebody might need in the moment, and helping them see things a lot clearer.
Remember these points when actively trying to be a more empathetic leader:
- Stay open and approachable
- Work on team building and knowledge sharing
- Keep in mind that life is bigger than your organisation
- Trust in the process, and in your team
- Honesty is the best policy
- Share your feelings and show you’re a human being
Of course, as always feedback is essential to the success of any organisation, so be sure to collect it regularly and fairly when working on your leadership skills. If you’re looking for more information on improving the productivity of your team you can read more here on employee engagement.