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Leading with Empathy: The Powerful Trait That Drives Team Success
Intelligent leaders see their employees as human beings first and utmost, not tools of production. They understand people have specific needs, feelings, aspirations, and fears. Leading with empathy means genuinely caring about the well-being of employees, supporting them, and giving them development opportunities. Empathy improves employee satisfaction, retention, and organizational productivity.
“Empathy is being concerned about the human being, not just their output.” – Simon Sinek.
Do you feel that effective leadership is about building meaningful relationships, creating positive work cultures and environments, inspiring others by connecting with them on meaningful levels, and encouraging collaboration? If so, you have a solid understanding of what leadership means. And you probably also know that empathy is the leadership trait that makes that possible.
Leading with empathy allows you to understand others, develop your emotional intelligence, and build trust.
Empathetic leaders are effective communicators and good conflict managers. Other leadership “superpowers” empathy can spark are creativity, adaptability, and the ability to engage employees and retain their services.
Empathy boosts all other leadership traits and abilities.
Trust and communication are the cornerstones of healthy and productive team relationships. Empathy in leadership allows for enhanced communication, leading to easy trust-building.
Leading with empathy boosts team motivation and morale. And it contributes to positive work environments where conflict resolution becomes simpler and more effective.
In this article, I explore how empathic leadership shapes team culture, pinpointing its concrete benefits for productivity and cooperation.
Understanding Empathy in Leadership
Empathy is more than the ability to recognize, understand, and acknowledge the feelings of another person. Empathetic people understand others’ perspectives based on their emotions.
Leadership is about influencing and inspiring others. Both these feats require a close connection and a deep understanding of the perspectives and attitudes others’ emotions create.
Since they understand how to respond to others’ emotions, empathetic leaders are great conflict managers and mediators. They know how to engage people and involve their employees on meaningful levels, motivating them and causing them to assume psychological ownership of the organizational goals and values.
Empathy makes leaders adaptable and inclusive. It enhances their decision-making. And it helps them build relationships and organizational cultures that facilitate employee satisfaction and productivity.
Leadership empathy always sparks action, meaning that it goes beyond sympathy. Empathetic leaders listen to their interlocutors actively and show genuine care. By their position, they often find that they have the power to make a positive difference in others’ lives.
Fostering Trust and Psychological Safety
Empathy leads to human and emotional connections. This “superpower” creates psychological safety and trust in several ways.
- Emotional intelligence. Empathy is a sign of emotional intelligence. Emotionally intelligent leaders are skilled in interpersonal relationships. And people are always receptive to this aspect of leadership. Emotional intelligence begets trust, as it creates psychological safety through understanding and effective communication.
- Understanding and emotional validation. People like to have their emotions, attitudes, and actions understood and validated. And they reward those who understand them with their trust and loyalty.
- Behavioral consistency. Genuinely empathetic leaders are consistent in showing empathy and acting empathetically. People take this consistency as proof of genuine caring and respond positively. Consistency and predictability also create an environment of psychological safety where people know what to expect and how to behave.
- Individual needs. People are individuals, and they have individual needs. They appreciate leaders who care about these needs and are attuned to them. Why do they appreciate such leaders? Genuinely caring about someone’s needs means that a leader is invested in the well-being and success of that person. When someone wants us to succeed, we tend to respond positively.
- Meaningful connections. People like those who understand them, listen to them actively and are curious about their challenges and successes. We choose our friends based on how well we connect with them. And leaders who care about their employees beyond the workplace can create deep, meaningful connections with their reports.
Psychological safety is a boon for productivity.
Alphabet Inc. CEO Sundar Pichai is a typical example of an intelligent, empathetic, and inclusive leader. Pichai showed empathy during times of crisis. During the global pandemic, he communicated often with employees, assuring them of his support and stressing the importance of mutual understanding. He took action by allowing additional days off and facilitating remote work. In addition to communicating openly, he made it clear that he cared about the well-being of Google employees.
Empathetic leaders listen to understand. Active listening is natural for such leaders as they are genuinely curious about their interlocutor’s words and feelings.
Empathy lends leaders flexibility in communication, allowing them to adapt their style to suit the needs of their team members. Empathy also enables leaders to be considerate when delivering constructive feedback, improving its impact.
Empathetic leadership allows leaders to navigate the labyrinth of conflicts skillfully. Since they understand the emotions, attitudes, and concerns underlying these intra-team tussles, empathetic leaders are more likely to find solutions that satisfy all parties involved.
Active listening forms the basis of empathetic communication. If you want to develop your communication skills, active listening is the perfect starting point. Here’s what else you can do to become a better communicator by using empathy:
- Eliminate judgment. Try to understand perspectives before you judge.
- Consider situations from alternative perspectives. Put yourself in others’ shoes.
- Expressing empathy. Do not refrain from pouring your empathy into words through expressions like “I see where you’re coming from.”
- Develop genuine interest. Make it your business to care and be curious about others’ opinions and feelings.
- Challenge yourself. Overcome cultural and background-wise differences when empathizing with others.
- Be proactive about feedback. Ask others what they think about your communication style.
Motivating and Inspiring Teams
Leaders who understand the feelings and perspectives of their team members find it easy to create an environment of psychological safety for everyone. In addition to building trust and providing safety, they motivate their followers by:
- Communicating clearly
- Leading by example
- Showing compassion
- Fostering development and autonomy
- Providing personalized support
- Setting clear goals
- Offering and requesting constructive feedback
- Showing compassion
- Being flexible
The 2014 ignition switch crisis left General Motors’ reputation hurt. CEO Mary Barra took responsibility, however, expressing genuine concern for the victims of the mishap. Through her empathy, compassion, and clear, transparent communication, she put a human face on the crisis, preserving customers’ trust and salvaging the reputation of the organization.
Emotional support gives team members psychological safety and improves their well-being. As a result, employees become more motivated, involved, and resilient.
Increased trust allows them to assume psychological ownership of organizational objectives. Once they do that, they derive more satisfaction from their work, becoming more creative and productive.
Conflict Resolution and Problem-Solving
Through their position, leaders who appreciate emotions and perspectives can play significant roles in managing conflicts and solving challenges.
Empathetic leaders can contribute to conflict resolution by:
- Reducing the defensiveness of the parties in conflict
- Improving communication
- Finding common ground
- Encouraging compromise
- Facilitating emotional control and regulation
- Coming up with common solutions
- Building trust instead of enmity
Leadership empathy provides a safe space for the parties in conflict where they can express their feelings, positions, and attitudes. People are less likely to become defensive and entrenched in their positions when they feel their concerns are heard and addressed.
By opening communication channels through empathy, leaders create opportunities for the parties in conflict to find common ground. In addition to creating a psychological safe space, empathy introduces diverse perspectives into the conflict, elevating thinking above individual interests.
To approach conflicts with empathy, leaders must practice active listening. They can also:
- Make resources available that may diffuse the conflict
- Express empathy verbally
- Make efforts to understand the feelings and views of the parties
- Focus on finding common interests and values
Empathy defeats conflict.
Employee Engagement and Retention
Happy, engaged, and satisfied employees do not leave organizations. And those with a psychological stake in the organization can’t even fathom leaving for greener pastures.
Motivating teams is, therefore, the duty and top objective of every intelligent leader. Empathy is the tool leaders need to achieve the objectives of meaningful employee engagement, happiness, empowerment, and satisfaction. Empathy factors into this equation by:
- Helping leaders understand the needs of their employees
- Improving communication between leadership and employees
- Reducing workplace stress
- Creating a culture of mutual support and development
- Helping leaders adapt their leadership to suit the needs of their teams
- Building trust and facilitating meaningful connections between different stakeholders.
Empathy in leadership creates reasons for employees to stay on the most meaningful levels. Motivation, engagement, and satisfaction are more effective tools for employee retention than an attractive salary.
Cloud-based software company Salesforce has been recognized as one of the best places to work. The distinction is a result of the organization’s focus on empathy, inclusivity, and a positive work environment. CEO Marc Benioff championed programs like employee resource groups and equal pay initiatives.
Empathy in Decision-making
Since empathy brings about improved communication and enhanced collaboration, it has a significant positive impact on the decision-making process. Ethical leaders understand that their decisions affect people. And they know how they impact them. Therefore, they tend to make ethical decisions as such decisions are most likely to align with the interests of their employees and other parties the decisions may concern.
An essential factor in ethical and empathetic decision-making is the well-being of team members. Taking into account the needs of employees, in addition to those of the customers, leads to decisions that boost morale and psychological safety throughout the organizational ranks.
During the 2008 financial crisis, companies faced bankruptcy, and cost-cutting measures were the order of the day. Starbucks CEO Howard Schultz decided to diverge from the cost-cutting trend and focus on reinforcing human connections.
His “barista reconnection” initiative, focused on re-training personnel to connect with customers, reassured employees, clarified the way forward, and reiterated Starbucks’ focus on human connections.
Empathetic leadership is a significant tool of growth and success for organizations. For a true leader, it is a privilege to support and guide people. Empathy helps leaders understand humanity and harness its energies for the benefit of everyone.
Empathy facilitates growth on every level.
Leaders may not be able to solve all of their employees’ problems, but they can support people, show them that they understand their feelings, and care for their well-being.
People tend to be receptive to empathy. And they respond to it through trust and loyalty.
From the perspective of intelligent leadership, empathy is an indispensable leadership trait. All forward-looking leaders should cultivate it intentionally.