“How wonderful is it that nobody need wait a single moment before starting to improve the world” (Anne Frank).
What kind of world would it be if we woke up every day excited to go to work and knowing we would make a difference and then came home every night looking forward to doing it all over again the next day? A great leader can inspire that feeling.
Great leaders connect what we do with why we do it and why it’s important, igniting engagement and commitment. In fact, leadership is so important that, according to Gallup research, “managers account for at least 70% of the variance in employee engagement scores.” Great leaders connect with employees on an individual level and inspire in them a sense of purpose and value. And they need empathy to do it.
Unfortunately, it seems most employees have the opposite of a great leader, with only 21% of employees reporting they strongly agree that their performance is “managed in a way that motivates them to do outstanding work.” These employees may dread going to work or, at best, feel bored and disconnected from meaning or making a difference. They are likely not looking forward to the next time they have to clock in and are probably looking for another job. They may even fear their leaders. Without inspiration and motivated by fear or avoidance, they give a minimum of effort and may shift their focus to finding something better. Their organizations may have promised a contribution to a greater good, to development opportunities and a chance to make a difference, but leaders with undeveloped empathy skills struggle to connect employees with that purpose.
Why Is Empathy Important?
The idea that empathy is key to effective leadership is not new. In fact, it seems to be even more critical in a world more harried, impersonal and divisive than we can remember in recent history. When we, as learning and development (L&D) professionals, help leaders develop empathy, we can make an immediate impact that reaches beyond our training sessions and helps to create a kinder, gentler workplace and a world where people can thrive. Effective leaders engage the people they lead and inspire commitment, trust and discretionary effort. In order to do so, they must be able to see the world from another’s perspective and to maintain that perspective as they lead.
In other words, if they want to help rearrange the furniture, they have to be inside the house.
The definition of empathy places it squarely at the center of skills necessary for effective, high-engagement, other-driven leadership. Woodbury University researchers Svetlana Holt and Joan Marques define empathy as the “ability to perceive others’ emotions, feelings, and needs.” When an empathetic leader tunes into team members’ strengths and opportunities, they can align organizational needs with individual contributions and provide coaching and strategic development to support employee and business goals.
Developing empathy, like other leadership skills, can be challenging. It requires self-awareness, a willingness to learn and grow, and diligent practice.
Validated and reliable self-assessments offer a solid foundation, not only for the strength of their foundational research but also to gain credibility with the leaders taking the assessment. If a learner struggles to find credibility in the instrument, he or she will struggle to take the results seriously. The most credible assessment tools require an administrator to hold certain credentials or earn a certification through training and supervised practice. In addition to a self-assessment, a comparable multi-rater assessment tool provides a clear picture of how others perceive the leader, which is the ultimate litmus test for demonstrating empathy effectively. If others don’t feel it, then, by definition, it’s not empathy.
Willingness to Learn and Grow
Curiosity and a mindset of learning rather than knowing, both critical to developing empathy, are difficult to develop. Much of how we analyze the world and our place in it is hardwired through a lifetime of reinforcement and natural preferences. Again, self-awareness is a good start, and learning about how others are wired can help reinforce a learning mindset and a willingness and motivation to learn more. When leaders understand that there is value in having a diversity of perspectives, they can lower their defenses and open themselves up to new ways of thinking — or at least appreciate the new ideas they gain from other ways of seeing the world. Using personality and behavioral style assessments in a classroom setting helps reinforce these concepts and breaks down barriers by increasing the understanding of the people leaders work with every day.
Diligent practice helps learners apply their new skills, but it is difficult to take on alone. Once learners awaken to their developmental opportunities and have wrestled with the “so what?” and the commitment to develop their new skill, they are faced with the “now what?”.
Coaching is commitment’s best friend. It creates accountability for leaders’ skill development or, at least, creates a reminder that they committed to it and an opportunity to carve out some time to step out of autopilot. Whether through group or individual coaching, the key is to help leaders devote time to applying the skill, reflect on the impact it has on their effectiveness as a leader and commit to an intentional application of the skill in their day-to-day work.
Empathy connects leaders to the people they lead on an emotional level, tapping the core of motivation and inspiration, fostering feelings of commitment and belonging, and creating a desire to perform and contribute to something larger than themselves. Imagine the kind of world we will have when leaders not only see the structure from the outside but understand the value of what is inside — and inspire us to invite them in, because we know they want to help us rearrange the furniture.