Empathetic leaders are in high demand and for a good reason. Studies show that employees who view their managers as compassionate tend to be more engaged. The reason is that employees want to feel that their needs are being met, they are being heard and they are valued. They want to know that their manager has a vested interest in helping them succeed that goes beyond the company’s bottom line.
Recent research by Businessolver found a staggering difference between how CEOs viewed the level of empathy at their company and how their employees viewed it. Specifically, 60 percent of CEOs viewed their company as being empathetic, compared to only 24 percent of their employees. This huge difference points to a big disconnect between executives and their workforce. But how important is empathy to the overall success of a business? Is it really that big a deal?
Korn Ferry, a global consulting firm specializing in organizational transformation and leadership, describes empathy as an essential leadership skill. It supports shared leadership by helping leaders get along with other leaders and, perhaps more importantly, helps leaders connect with people of all levels and backgrounds. A key trait of empathetic leaders is that they are in tune with what their employees are feeling – not because they possess psychic powers but because they take the time to actually listen to what their employees are saying. It’s not surprising, then, that companies with high levels of empathy also enjoy higher levels of engagement. They also tend to attract more customers; the Businessolver study found that 42 percent of consumers say that they would not buy from a company that they viewed as lacking in empathy.
There’s no doubt that empathy brings many benefits to the workplace. The tricky part is finding leaders who possess this skill. Empathy is hard to measure and even harder to teach. It’s a skill that can’t be learned from reading a business book or attending a seminar. Empathy is a skill that is developed through continued practice over time, and it requires commitment on the part of the practitioner.
So, how can businesses train their leaders to be more empathetic? Two words: community service. Merriam-Webster defines empathy as “the action of understanding, being aware of, being sensitive to, and vicariously experiencing the feelings, thoughts, and experience of another.” Talk to anyone who has ever volunteered, and they will tell you that their experience resulted in one or all of the elements of that definition.
Robert Ingersoll said, “We rise by lifting others.” One group that understands this concept well is educators. In schools across the country, teachers encourage students to participate in service learning projects as a way of cultivating empathy and encouraging teamwork. Students ranging in age from elementary school to the university level volunteer for projects to help make their communities a better place to live. Data show that students who take part in such activities exhibit increased levels of empathy toward others. A 2015 study published in the Journal of Experiential Education assessed 155 first-, second- and fifth-grade students on empathy and community service as part of a pilot service learning program. The researchers concluded that volunteering forges connections and promotes teamwork, citing an increase in participants’ levels of empathy and community service.
Studies like this one beg the question: If schools understand the role service learning plays in the development of empathy and overall emotional intelligence in students, why hasn’t business done the same with leaders? There’s mounting evidence that corporations are beginning to catch on, according to an article in the Stanford Business Review. The authors, who work for CDC Development Solutions, write that “a growing number of corporations” are finding that skills-based volunteering is an excellent way to develop leadership skills.
There’s a saying that “people don’t leave companies; they leave managers.” Service learning projects help reinforce the lessons taught in formal leadership training courses while providing leaders with the opportunity to cultivate empathy through the hands-on experience of helping others. In the workplace, this training translates into an awareness of how their actions and decisions impact others. Increased self-awareness also means a better understanding of employee needs. Remember, employees want to feel that they are heard, that they are valued and that their managers are invested in their success beyond what they can bring to the business.
Employees want to feel valued as people. Companies that recruit and develop empathetic leaders may see increased levels of engagement and decreased turnover as a result. The benefits extend beyond the individual to those around them and the community at large. In the end, those benefits are, perhaps, the best of all.