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What Leaders Must Get Right

Empathy has always been a critical skill for leaders, but it is taking on a new level of meaning and priority. Far from a soft approach, it can drive significant business results. Empathetic leadership means having the ability to understand the needs of others, and being aware of their feelings and thoughts. Unfortunately, it has long been a soft skill that's overlooked, but current research says that empathy is the most important leadership skill. Great leadership requires a careful mix of a variety of skills to create conditions for engagement, happiness, and performance to flourish, and empathy tops the list of what leaders must get right.

Empathy is so necessary now because people are experiencing multiple kinds of stress. Data suggests it is affected by the ways our lives and our work have been turned upside down by the pandemic. A global study by Qualtrics found 42% of people have experienced a decline in mental health. Specifically, 67% of people are experiencing increases in stress while 57% have increased anxiety, and 54% are emotionally exhausted. 53% of people are sad, 50% are irritable, 28% are having trouble concentrating, 20% are taking longer to finish tasks, 15% are having trouble thinking, and 12% are challenged to juggle their responsibilities.

As we go through tough times, struggle with burnout, or find it challenging to find happiness at work, empathy can be a powerful antidote, contributing to positive experiences for individuals and teams. A new study by Catalyst found empathy has significant effects:

  • Innovation. When people reported that their leaders were empathetic, 61% said they were more likely to be innovative.

  • Engagement. 76% of people who experienced empathy from their leaders reported they were engaged.

  • Retention. 57% of white women and 62% of women of color said they were unlikely to think of leaving their companies when they felt their life circumstances were respected and valued by their companies.

  • Work-Life. When people felt their leaders were more empathetic, 86% reported they are able to navigate the demands of their work and life—successfully juggling their personal, family and work obligations.

  • Mental health. When leaders were perceived as more empathetic, people reported greater levels of mental health.

Where does empathy originate? Can we learn it? Empathy seems to be inborn. Studies show that children as young as two demonstrated an appreciation that others hold different perspectives than their own. Research showed that when people saw their friends experiencing threats, they experienced activity in the same part of their brain which was affected when they were personally threatened. In other words, people felt for their friends and teammates as deeply as they felt for themselves. Empathy is clearly an important part of our human condition—at work and in our personal lives.

Leaders can make a huge difference by leading with empathy. They do not have to be experts on mental health in order to demonstrate they care and are paying attention. It’s enough to check in, ask questions, and take cues from the employee. They can be well-informed about mental health support that the organization makes available.

Great leadership also requires action. People will trust leaders and feel a greater sense of engagement and commitment when there is definite alignment between what the leader says and does. It’s essential that we use our organization to build people rather than using people to build our organization.

Here are some practical ways to lead with empathy:

Don’t lead fatigued. If you’ve ever spent time with a whiny toddler, you know that sometimes the issue is just that they need to rest and get renewed. Adults are the same way. One of the best, most proactive things you can do as a leader is to step into rhythm and stay unfatigued. Rest.

Walk weekly through the offices. Slowly. Affirm and encourage them. Applaud them however you can. Make sure you informally talk to them about what’s going right, rather than just formal times when you tell them what’s going wrong.

Never be condescending or demeaning. You can be right about something and require fulfillment of standards without demeaning anyone. When you demean or condescend to one person, everyone who sees it is impacted and morale is destroyed.

Care about their family. Their lives are bigger than work and they need you to care about the things that matter most.

Assume the best. Always. Give grace and benefit of the doubt. Assume they weren’t equipped correctly—and own that equipping them is your job. Assume they might have had something happen in their personal life. As the leader, always take responsibility. Take it with grace, not grudgingly.

Keep short accounts and a short memory. My dad always said to keep short accounts. He meant don’t carry offenses. Say you are sorry and fix it as early as you can. Forgive and move forward. Create a culture where you can confront disagreements quickly, readily adapt, and move forward.

Do the right thing in the right way. It’s not just WHAT you say, but HOW you say it. It’s not just WHAT you did, but their perception of what happened. Slow down before you act, especially when you’re confronting someone or correcting a situation. Most things aren’t urgent or emergencies. Waiting a few hours or overnight before handling a situation helps release some of the emotion, and the sense of empathy expands all around.

Critique privately. Cheer publicly. The time and place for both cheering and critiquing really matter. Don’t get it backward. What you say, when you say it, where you say it, and how you say it all matter. NEVER raise your voice.

Invite—insist upon—feedback. You need to grow too. Don’t be defensive when they give feedback. Receive it. Take time to process it. Their sincere words will create great opportunities for your own growth.

Lead with questions, not commands. Your tone—and how you approach people—matters. The lowest level of leadership is POSITIONAL leadership (i.e., your title, your place on the organization chart). The highest level is PERSONAL RELATIONSHIP. Kindness, gentleness, and honor always reap great results.

Empathy means using our leadership to build people rather than using people to build the organization.

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