Why empathy is such a critical leadership skill in the workplace

Trust is the key reason empathy is such a critical leadership skill!

When trust is lacking in your team, you are not a leader; you are just a manager. A key element of building trust with others is empathy. When we show that we are aware of how others feel and that we respect those feelings, even when we don’t agree with them, it builds trust. When we demonstrate understanding of what an employee is feeling they begin to develop a belief that we will, at least, take their feelings into consideration. We can then use this understanding of what others feel to support our team, giving them what they need to succeed.

This human approach in the workplace further strengthens our relationships, increases collaboration and improves productivity. When we become aware that our view of the world is not the only view, it is the first step. We actively need become aware of how our actions may be perceived and take this perspective into account when we judge the actions of others. Learning to empathise with others can be very powerful. Even when an issue can’t be solved immediately through factors outside our control, when we demonstrate caring and understanding satisfaction rises.

trust empathy is such a critical leadership skill

Without this willingness to understand the feelings of others, our team members will always have their defences up. They will continually feel like they have to protect themselves, often to the detriment of team harmony and knowledge sharing. With an empathetic leader, team members know that their feelings will never be simply overlooked or ignored. Empathy based on trust enables leaders to influence rather than having to rely purely on their line authority, carrots or sticks.

A leader who applies influence, rather than just asserting authority, is far likelier to succeed.

There are three keys to developing empathy as a leader:

  1. Listening skills. Follow the “2 ears, 2 eyes & 1 mouth” rule. Spend more time listening and paying attention, than talking. Stop waiting for your turn to speak, and seek to understand what the other person is trying to say (beyond the words). This requires listening and asking clarifying questions. It is very easy in today’s technologically rich environments to get distracted by the “ping” of social media demanding our attention on laptops and emails, but empathetic leaders eliminate distractions and focus on the person who is speaking. Listening is also about becoming aware of tone and context. Becoming aware of another’s levels of stress, anger or frustration, for example, can help us understand their actions and feelings. listening empathy is such a critical leadership skill
  2. Non-judgmental. It is important not to judge others feelings, even when their feelings directly contradict our own feelings. Effective leaders appreciate what the other person is feeling, and understand how those feelings may impact that person’s perception and actions. They do this without passing judgment about whether those feelings are right or wrong. They focus on helping find a solution rather than playing the judgement game.solution focus empathy is such a critical leadership skill
  3. Self-awareness. As leaders we need to gain awareness and perspective on what we feel, and manage our behaviour consciously. Stepping back from our own (and the other person’s feelings) to analyse the situation in an objective manner. Empathetic leaders are aware of what they feel, but don’t let those feelings influence their behaviour. They manage their behaviour and take conscious actions to achieve a positive result.perspective empathy is such a critical leadership skill

Building understanding through stories

Some people are naturally more empathetic than others, but all of us can develop the skill. Since being able to empathise ultimately comes from understanding another’s experience, one of the most powerful ways to develop empathy is by sharing stories. It is hard to understand another’s experience or perspective if we don’t know their story. Stories are a powerful way of tapping into our imaginations and helping us understand how someone else may have felt, or what they could have been thinking. This is a great technique to help team members understand the experience or feelings of others (customers and team members).

3 keys to developing empathy as a leader Infographic


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Richard Riche

Change Communication and Employee Engagement specialist at One Clear Message Consulting
Richard specialises in helping you build real human communication skills. Employee Engagement / Experience, Emotional Intelligence skills, building high performance teams and a great place you want to work. TED style speaking and presentation skills. Training, consulting and coaching.
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