The Empathetic Leader

Dina Steiner, Founder and Director of Spirit at Work ATX

We’ve all experienced a tough day at work. And we’ve probably all seen our co-workers and subordinates go through it as well. Sometimes, we’re at a loss about how to respond. But in most situations, a little empathy goes a long way.

Generally speaking, empathy is the ability to understand and share the feelings of another. Psychologists have identified three types of empathetic behaviors in humans:

  1. Affective empathy or emotional empathy. It is our innate, involuntary drive to mimic emotions. It’s why you laugh harder during a comedy if you watch it with someone else. It’s why a great actor can move you to tears. We are biologically programmed to share emotions. Researchers also refer to it as emotional contagion.
  2. Cognitive empathy has to do with reading emotional cues and assigning meaning to them. Some people are just naturally better at this, but it can be taught and improved upon. It has to do with perspective-taking and being able to intellectually put oneself in another’s shoes.
  3. Empathetic concern or compassion. This level of empathy describes the ability to sense another’s emotional state and wanting to respond to it. Studies have found a connection between compassion and better overall health, stronger connections with others, and happier outlooks.

Research has shown that empathy is a key component of effective leadership. A 2007 study by the Center for Creative Leadership questioned the subordinates of 6,731 leaders from 38 countries about the effectiveness of their bosses, as rating them on empathetic behaviors including:

  • Conveys compassion toward them when other people disclose a personal loss.
  • Is sensitive to signs of overwork in others.
  • Shows interest in the needs, hopes, and dreams of other people.
  • Is willing to help an employee with personal problems.

The researchers also had the leaders’ effectiveness evaluated by their supervisors. The results revealed that empathy is positively related to job performance. Managers who showed more empathy toward direct reports were viewed as better performers in their job by their bosses.

5 Ways to Increase Empathy at Work

  1. Talk about empathy in the workplace and use it as a metric for evaluations. Reward compassionate behavior. Bring in speakers to lead workshops on empathy and emotional intelligence.
  2. Teach active listening skills, including reading body language and other non-verbal listening cues.
  3. Encourage perspective taking. Ask people to put themselves in another’s shoes – not just co-workers but customers as well.
  4. Cultivate compassion by encouraging company-wide service projects. Allow employees to take time off for caregiving or other compassionate endeavors. Make sure leaders model such behavior by taking an interest in their direct reports.
  5. Recognize cross-cultural differences especially in high “power distance” cultures, such as many Asian cultures where more paternalism from managers is expected. Know when eye contact is important or to be avoided. Understand unspoken rules against touching, or personal questions.

With 50% of managers seen as poor performers or failures in their jobs (Gentry, 2010; Gentry and Chappelow, 2009) organizations must recognize the value in improving the managerial and leadership skills within their existing employee base. Encouraging and teaching empathy in the workplace can be a great place to start supporting current leaders and building the leaders for tomorrow.