Daniel Goleman, the distinguished author who popularized the components of emotional intelligence, put it best in his 1995 book “Emotional Intelligence: Why It Can Matter More than IQ” when he said, “If you can’t have empathy and have effective relationships, then no matter how smart you are, you are not going to get very far.” This sentiment still proves true. Being empathic and truly “putting yourself in someone else’s shoes” is not just important in fostering positive personal relationships … it’s vital for the smooth operation of organizations across industries.
Mind Tools defines empathy as “the ability to identify and understand another’s situation, feelings and motives.” Empathy is in high demand among both employees and employers; according to Businesssolver’s 2019 “State of Workplace Empathy” study, 90% of employees say they’re more likely to stay with an empathic employer, and 87% of CEOs believe empathy is linked to financial performance.
Dr. Helen Riess, director of the Empathy and Relational Science Program at Massachusetts General Hospital and associate clinical professor at Harvard Medical School, has devoted her time, energy and research to the subject of empathy. More specifically, she investigates whether empathy can be taught — and after extensive research, she found that it can. Now, after founding empathy training company Empathetics, Riess has seen firsthand the impact empathy has on a multitude of organizations and industries.
Riess notes that empathy in the workplace sets the tone that people matter. “A culture of empathy gives people the benefit of the doubt that they are probably doing their best and, if for some reason they’re not, it seeks to understand what might be impeding good performance before judging or punishing,” she says. Learning and development (L&D) professionals can help leaders develop this keen sense of understanding by encouraging them to get to know their team members — and their unique strengths and weaknesses — on a deeper level.
Empathy in the workplace can also help increase both individual and team performance — and it starts with leadership. “The goal of the leader is to lead people. Often, we talk about leaders leading organizations, but organizations are made up of people and, in order to keep employees or a workforce engaged, productive, feeling positive, and collaborating and cooperating with others, they need to be treated that way [by] their leaders. The leaders set the tone for how people are treated in an organization,” Riess says.
Empathic leaders also play a role in increasing employee engagement among team members. Riess says that having an empathic leader “energizes a team, makes them want to come to work, and makes people feel like they’re all in it for the good of the company or the good of the mission.” Thus, employee engagement and job satisfaction are both improved through empathic leadership.
Sandy Rogers, managing director of FranklinCovey’s loyalty practice, has seen empathy drive major business results by working with numerous organizations throughout his career. In “Leading Loyalty: Cracking the Code to Customer Devotion,” which Rogers wrote along with Leena Rinne and Shawn Moon, empathy is identified as one of three key core loyalty practices, along with responsibility and generosity.
Rogers says that making a genuine human connection is the first step in creating empathy. The second step is learning an individual’s hidden story, because “without listening to what’s most important or urgent to others, without knowing their story, we’re not going to have empathy for them,” Rogers says.
While leading with empathy does require a greater focus on human connection and understanding, it’s important to note that empathy doesn’t have to be a chore. Demonstrating empathy can be as simple as making eye contact with a visibly distressed team member from across the room or actively listening to others, “not just with your ears, but with your eyes and heart too,” Rogers notes.
Therefore, teaching leaders active listening skills, such as asking questions, offering verbal and nonverbal feedback to show signs of listening, and summarizing, is another way L&D professionals can help leaders become more empathic.
For leaders, creating a culture of empathy means acknowledging the individual emotions and experiences of team members, which, in turn, increases trust and drives better business results. Rogers explains, “As we have empathy for others, we are on the road to earning their loyalty, and, as we earn customer’s loyalty, we will encourage them to buy more from us and recommend us to all their friends — and that’s the key to business growth and bigger profits.”
Additionally, Riess notes that knowing you’re cared about as a whole person can be more important than a raise for some employees. As a result, “if you have a workforce engaged at that level, you really can’t help but have a better bottom line — because everybody’s all in.”
For Michael Ventura, founder and CEO of brand strategy and design company Sub Rosa and author of “Applied Empathy: The New Language of Leadership,” empathy is more than a leadership skill — it’s a business model. After realizing that all of Sub Rosa’s successes involved empathy in one way or another, the team decided to incorporate empathy into all facets of business, a process it named “applied empathy.”
After adopting a corporate culture of empathy, Ventura shares, “What has emerged is this really supportive culture where people genuinely have each other’s best interests in mind and work to help each other through challenges that emerge. It was never in the playbook, but it has become the north star — and we’re really happy about that.”
For leaders wanting to become more empathic, don’t fear: Like Riess, Ventura believes that empathy can be taught. “I’m a firm believer that … [the] cognitive aspect of empathy is very trainable.”
By helping leaders develop critical active listening skills, build a greater understanding of individual team members and create a more supportive work culture, L&D professionals are well positioned to help leaders become more empathic and, as a result, drive lasting organizational change.