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Empathy and Example: Two Important Factors in Effective Leadership
Leadership training programs routinely emphasize the importance of integrity and trust between leaders and those they lead.
Trust is the spark and integrity is the fuel in the engine of team productivity.
Integrity is a trait that’s hard to define, but not hard to recognize. It is a way of demonstrating wholeness and soundness. When people see integrity, they are drawn to it, and when they see it in leaders, they are more likely to follow them.
Trust is closely related to integrity because both trust and integrity indicate that you believe someone can be relied upon. You can rely upon them to be who they say they are, to demonstrate what they say they believe, and to relieve others of the burden of wondering whether they are honorable. And two of the best ways of demonstrating integrity and trustworthiness are practicing empathy and setting a good example.
Empathy: The “Soft” Skill Most People Acquire the Hard Way
It’s unfortunate that empathy is classified as a “soft” skill, not because soft skills are somehow inferior to “hard” skills, but because developing empathy usually requires dealing with hardship in some form. The word empathy comes from root words meaning “in” and “feeling.” Having empathy means you can figuratively put yourself in another’s shoes and understand why they feel the way they do.
A 2018 study by researchers at Texas A&M University found that empathetic leadership improves follower behavior and performance. Talking to a leader who appears to have no understanding of where you’re coming from (and no desire to understand) is demoralizing and tears down trust. And without trust, leadership falls flat.
Consistently Setting an Example Cultivates Trust
Setting a good example also builds trust and strengthens the bond between leaders and followers. Few things destroy trust faster than seeing someone you admire doing something they say is wrong, or that they won’t tolerate. It opens up all sorts of questions about what else they may be deceptive about.
Researchers studied the specific example of “cyberloafing,” or goofing off online during work hours. Specifically, in workplaces where cyberloafing was frowned-upon, how leaders behaved had a significant influence on how rank-and-file workers behaved. In other words, when leaders engaged in cyberloafing, everyone else was likely to do the same.
When leaders goof off at work, everyone else feels empowered to do so.
While cyberloafing can be a minor infraction, the effect of example on this behavior leads to questions of the importance of example in other behaviors. Actively demonstrating values through behavior may be a “quieter” form of leadership, but the effects speak loudly and clearly.
Empathy and Example Humanize Leadership
Empathy and example show that leaders are human beings and not just people who have obtained an impressive job title. Leadership coaching often involves working on behaviors that humanize leaders to those who report to them, so that trust and loyalty grow. And leadership development programs that neglect the value of empathy and example let participants down because leadership devoid of empathy and example is hollow.
Whether or not you have a job title associated with leadership, you owe it to those you work with as colleagues, those you supervise, and those you report to, to demonstrate empathy and set an example through your actions. The strongest organizations share bonds built on trust, which is something that takes time to build. Empathy and a strong example are two essential building blocks.
Excellent leadership coaching is never about shortcuts, or about “looking like” a leader so people will follow. It’s about doing the actual work required so that people are inspired to follow. Ultimately you can’t fake fundamental values like empathy and trustworthiness, and those who do eventually see how flimsy and fragile unearned trust is.