Empathy as a team leadership skill is now more important than ever.
Covid has changed the way we work in so many ways. Clearly, it has forced us to re-examine our work-life balance and that of our team members. It has required us to ‘relate to the thoughts, emotions, or experience of others’.
This is the essence of empathy. It’s more than simple sympathy, which is about being able to understand and support others with compassion or sensitivity.
While Covid may have provided a catalyst for more empathy in the workplace, it’s importance as a construct fundamental to leadership has been known and studied for quite a while.
Empathy in the workplace
In 2016 The Center for Creative Leadership published Empathy in the Workplace – A Tool for Effective Leadership based on a presentation to The Society of Industrial Organizational Psychology Conference, New York, New York, April 2007.
CCL analyzed data from 6,731 managers from 38 countries and arrived at two important findings about empathy;
- It is positively related to job performance. Managers who show more empathy toward direct reports are viewed as better performers in their job by their bosses.
- It is more important to job performance in certain cultures than others.
Managers who show more empathy toward direct reports are viewed as better performers in their job by their bosses.The Center for Creative Leadership. 2016
The positive relationship between empathic emotion and performance was greater for managers living in countries where the cultures believe that power provides harmony, social order, and role stability. For example China, Egypt, Hong Kong, Malaysia, New Zealand, Poland, Singapore and Taiwan.
While leadership empathy may be more critical to performance in certain cultures, it is reasonable to think that even cultures that have flatter perceptions of leadership power will have seen a shift in the importance of empathy during and in the aftermath, of Covid.
Empathy as an antidote to the great resignation?
Also, as we manage through the so-called ‘Great Resignation’, greater empathy may also improve team stickiness. Empathetic leaders will be more likely to spot the early signs of burn-out and be more sympathetic in finding solutions before a team-member resigns.
5 tips for leading with empathy
How to lead with empathy?
The CCL study referenced above offers advice on how to be more a more empathetic leader;
- Talk about empathy – Teams take their cues from the top. Let your team know that empathy matters.
- Teach listening skills. To understand others and sense what they are feeling, managers must be good listeners.
- Put yourselves in the other person’s place. This includes taking into account the personal experience or perspective of their team members.
- Cultivate compassion. Support managers who care about how someone else feels or consider the effects that business decisions have on employees, customers, and communities.
- Support global managers. Empathy is especially important for leaders working with the nuances of multinational, multi-cultural teams.
Seven behaviours to improve teams
When we analysed our extensive database of client-agency evaluations, we were able to determine seven behavioural traits that separate the best teams from the rest. Unlike these seven business-related behaviours, empathy is an over-riding positive human characteristic that is healthy for both our personal and our business lives.