Leading with Empathy

According to LinkedIn, two of the most shared topics on leadership in 2022 were related to empathy and kindness.  As I reflect on the commentary and advice each author imparts, I found myself thinking, “What is trendy or trending isn’t just a trend.” The research is clear – being empathic and kind creates a more productive, inclusive and innovative work environment. And sentiments from employees speak loudly - we want to work for and with people who embody those behaviors. Yet with all of this research knowledge, and advice, there continues to be a gap in people actually being empathetic and kind. Leaders, the good news is, these traits can be learned.

Empathy is the ability to put yourself in someone else's shoes and understand their needs. It lets you relate to their thoughts and feelings and develop a deeper understanding of who they are as a person. If another person is struggling, empathy lets you envision yourself in the same situation while putting aside judgment. By imagining how someone else's experience might make you feel, you are better able to show kindness and compassion. Responding with empathy is important because it meets a few of our basic human needs: the fundamental need to be understood, the need to have our feelings validated and helps us to create deeper bonds with each other.

Though often overlooked, empathy in the workplace makes it easier to communicate and connect with your employees, strengthen your bonds and boost their performance. Some leaders are naturally more empathetic than others and will have an advantage over their peers who have difficulty expressing empathy. Most leaders fall in the middle and are sometimes or somewhat empathetic. Fortunately, it’s not a fixed trait. Empathetic leadership can be learned.  Practice developing your empathy skills with the following ideas from the authors of the most liked and shared LinkedIn articles on leadership in 2022.

Listening with Empathy

When a leader is a good listener, people feel respected, and trust on the team can grow. To show the highest levels of empathy, focus on listening to hear the meaning behind what others are saying. Pay attention to not only the words being said, but also the feelings and values being shown, through nonverbal cues such as tone, pace of speech, facial expressions, and gestures.

Leader Check-in:
At lunch or in a one-on-one meeting, focus on actively listening to the other person. Adopt a curious mindset and ask open-ended questions to gain a greater understanding of their experiences and perspective. Pay particular attention to notice the feelings and values shared, not just facts.
Writing with Empathy

When handled effectively, communication in writing can move projects forward faster, inspire teams, and even build deeper relationships with your employees.  Consider how many emails you send and receive each day. To lead with empathy, each time you draft an email, think about it as a ‘conversation with a pause.’ Seeing email as a dialogue verse a monologue can put you in a new state of mind as you craft your message.  

Leader Check-in:
Pull up an email you recently sent to an employee with a specific request for follow-up. Analyze your words by asking yourself the following questions.
  • What was the tone of my message?
  • What action did I ask of the reader?
  • Did I use familiar, concrete words?
  • Did I avoid padding words like very or really?
  • What do you notice about your email?
  • What words and phrases would you adjust?
Talking with Empathy

As a leader, do you encourage conversational turn-taking? Listening to others can make us better communicators. Taking turns can help us strengthen our sense of belonging while building trust and allowing everyone to be heard. Paying attention to how you help your employees to feel understood and validated goes a long way in creating a more empathetic and kinder work environment.  

Leader Check-in:
During your next meeting with 3+ people be an active observer.
  • Observe turn-taking in action. Does it work smoothly, with each person able to contribute to the conversation?
  • Could you spot cues that helped to identify the next speaker in the conversation?
  • Did one person have to make frequent, multiple starts before others would give them the chance to speak up?
  • Did you hear instances of simultaneous speech? If so, how were they resolved?
  • Were there extended pauses, where no one self-selected to speak up?

Creating an opportunity where everyone gets a chance to speak and be heard is another way leading with empathy can create a productive and inclusive work environment.

Leading with empathy can have a positive impact on you, your team and your organization. At the same time, keep in mind the importance of setting boundaries and continue to hold people accountable. It can be easy to overcorrect as you learn, get distracted by other people's struggles or unintentionally allow some employees to repeatedly miss deadlines.

Each situation is unique. It takes practice to learn how much empathy is appropriate in every circumstance. Practice leading with empathy and you’ll ensure good decision making while maintaining a standard of behavior.

Once you start thinking about empathy in the workplace, you begin to see opportunities for empathy in nearly every interaction. Empathy can be beneficial when interacting with employees, superiors, customers, business partners, or candidates.

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