Empathy In Leadership – Can It Be Developed?

Empathy In Leadership – Can It Be Developed? Heather, the boss, storms out of the department, slamming the door shut behind her. She is grouchy from lack of sleep, being kept awake during the night by her youngest who is unwell. ‘Bloody staff’, she mutters to herself, ‘why can’t they do what they are told’. Lisa stands there red-faced, humiliated and wishing the ground would open up and swallow her. Her report was late. Her mind was elsewhere as she has just split up from her long-term partner. She had requested some days off to sort herself out, but Heather had said ‘no’ as they were too busy. Empathy in leadership? Can it be developed?


Are you familiar with such stories and perhaps have been in the position of Heather or Lisa?

How different would this scenario be if Heather showed some empathy towards Lisa? A simple conversation around why the report was late might have given her some insight into how Lisa was feeling and how this is affecting her performance.

Likewise, Lisa may have been more understanding of Heather’s behaviour had she know the circumstances.

If Heather was aware of her own emotions and the affect on her behaviour and on others, a different scenario might have been being played out.

Empathy is who we are in our connection to each other. If there is little connection there, our relationships, mood, feelings, emotions are not taken into account.

Without any connectedness, there is no insight, understanding of each other’s world and perspectives. There is no openness, trust or vulnerability. There is no sense that you know me as a person. As someone who has dreams, ambitions, hopes, concerns, feelings…

There is only the sense that I work for ‘you’, the ‘organisation’ and that I am here only to produce results. Have you ever felt like this?

Empathy is a key part of emotional intelligence and is fundamental to effective leadership. It is the ability to manage and share your emotions and to vicariously understand other people’s feelings and perspectives, and to use that insight to guide your behaviour and actions.


4 ways to become more empathetic

1. Be in tune with your emotions

You cannot manage your emotions if you are not aware of them. Until you are able to do this, it will be a challenge to understand the actions of others which are largely driven by emotions.

Managing your emotions is about accepting that they exist and dealing with them. To do that requires self-awareness. Emotions carry a message about something that is happening now or that has happened in the past and is unresolved. How we think, affects how we feel and this in turns affects our behaviour.

Next time you experience an emotion, notice it and ask yourself ‘what is this feeling trying to tell me?’

Learn to recognise triggers and if you feel yourself getting too upset or angry, take a few seconds time out to THINK about whatever is happening and what might have led to that feeling and deal with it


2. Be curious

Cast your mind back to your childhood and how inquisitive you were? Or if you have children, the endless questions that they ask?

Be brave and take that up again. Strike up conversations with people that you hardly ever speak to. Or even better that you don’t know!

Get an insight into their world and their perspectives. You would be amazed at what you can learn from being open to learning about other people’s cultures, background and worldviews.

Curiosity opens the mind to new ideas and to things that would probably escape your everyday attention.

Have you noticed that people who rarely stray from their circles or networks are those who have the least interesting stories to tell and are usually quite boring!


3. Be in the moment and listen with intent

Listening is different to hearing: it suggests that you are paying attention, are interested and want to understand what is being said. To listen well, put your thoughts aside and focus on what is being said. Most importantly, try not to think about what you are going to say in response. This is what most people tend to do!

Come to the conversation with an empty mind, putting aside your own preconceptions, judgement and assumptions. A good listener will not interrupt and only asks questions for clarification.

Be receptive to the emotions and feelings and pay attention to non verbal signals.

Next time you are in a conversation, notice how much time you spend listening.


4. Build connections

Giving time and attention to others fosters empathy. Get to know your staff by spending time with them – a conversation over a coffee in the canteen, lunch in the nearby café… Get to know them on an emotional level.

Positive emotions are infectious and these in turn affect culture and the climate of the organisation.

You are in a prime position to influence the emotional climate of your organisation.

Be attune to the people you lead and responding to their concerns and needs in a way that takes into account their feelings and perspectives.


Photo courtesy of stocksnap
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