Leadership skills training: the importance of empathy

Jan 20 2023 | Tags: Emotional Intelligence Training

Leadership skills training: the importance of empathy

Empathy is one of the 10 core competencies in the Emotional Capital framework for assessing and developing EQ skills. It is also one of the most critical. Without high levels of empathy, it is almost impossible for leaders to succeed in modern business.

Empathy is needed when you are tasked with managing remote teams. It is essential for meeting the changed expectations of employees operating in a post-Covid landscape where flexibility and understanding are seen as a minimum requirement rather than an added bonus. And it is now so crucial to workplace happiness that 83% of employees say they would consider leaving their job to work at a more empathetic organisation.

Despite this importance, issues around empathy are incredibly common. To some extent, that’s because most people believe they are highly empathetic while the truth is often the reverse. If you’re experiencing relationship problems in your organisation, or want to understand why empathy is an important leadership skill, this article will give you the pointers you need to start to practically improve your leaders’ empathy levels.

What is empathy?

To get a full understanding of empathy, we must first overcome a common misconception: empathy is not sympathy. Empathy is about understanding another person’s point of view and how they feel. Being empathetic lets you understand the world from the other person’s perspective and enables you to build the common ground on which most relationships thrive.

Why is empathy an important leadership skill?

Being empathetic helps you to convey to your team that you are genuinely listening to what they are saying. You are giving them the space and confidence to communicate freely, and you are actively building trust among your team. Empathy helps you with two critical aspects of productive professional relationships:

  • You can better understand the emotional elements of a situation.
  • You can create, build and maintain resonant connections with others.

The primary power of empathy is to establish common ground. Think of it as the emotional glue that builds connection, trust, and loyalty. As a leader, your job is to demonstrate that you’re committed to understanding other people. Strong levels of empathy should be an essential part of your toolbox.

How can you build your empathy skills?

Improving three different elements of your behaviour can dramatically enhance your empathy skills.

1. Listening

Excellent listening skills build rapport and create a positive climate for revealing important information. This is critical to overcoming resistance and driving engagement. Think of any workplace dispute: nothing is successfully resolved without each side listening to the other.

  • Pay attention to your body language, make eye contact, lean forward, and use appropriate facial expressions to convey that you are taking in what is being said.
  • Use a calm, open tone of voice and take care not to interrupt or respond prematurely to your counterpart.

2. Emotional connections

Building an emotional connection involves understanding and validating another person’s feelings.

  • The aim is to ensure the other person feels they are heard and understood, so look for the emotional signs of what your counterpart is experiencing.
  • Build a bridge between you and the person you are talking to by carefully reflecting their feelings back to them.

3. Curiosity

Developing your curiosity is a logical step in your efforts to build empathy. Doing so allows you to accurately read the emotions of others.
  • Show you are willing to suspend judgement by posing open questions that enable your counterpart to fully explore their current situation.
  • Consistently paraphrase back what you’ve heard, in an effort to prompt your counterpart into clarifying or confirming information. This will make them feel reassured that you are taking care to understand their perspective.

Checklist: 8 key traits to see if you are empathetic

It is possible to get a broad understanding of whether you may possess strong levels of empathy. Typically, empathetic leaders are:

  1. Highly approachable, with employees not intimidated by the prospect of approaching you when they need support or assistance.
  2. Good at making employees feel valued, from relatively simple tasks like asking about their family through to thinking deeply about what they need to thrive in today’s fast-paced workplace.
  3. Patient and non-judgemental, which helps to build an atmosphere of trust and psychological safety.
  4. Aware of, and in control of, their body language. By deliberating expressing themselves in subtle, physical ways, empathetic leaders get the best from their team.
  5. Welcoming to others and proactive in seeking outside views. Instead of operating with a ‘closed shop’ mentality, they are keen to gather input from their entire team.
  6. Flexible on their opinions and actions, and able to change course if they can see that current choices are causing discomfort among their team.
  7. Conscious listeners. They don’t just sit quietly while someone is talking. They actively ensure that they absorb and reflect on the information being presented.
  8. Excellent motivators with genuine concern for others. If a team is consistently underperforming and showing low levels of motivation, a lack of empathy could be a factor.

What are the workplace benefits of being an empathetic leader?

In today’s business environment, where technological disruption goes hand-in-hand with fast decision making and flexible working, empathetic leadership is needed more than ever. The benefits of developing highly tuned empathy skills reach far beyond a manager’s immediate team.

For the wider organisation, having leaders in place who have high levels of empathy can quickly improve customer service. When leaders are able to recognise the emotions at play and understand a situation from a customer’s perspective, they become much more likely to drive forward positive changes in the customer experience.

Internal communication is also enhanced, because leaders can adapt their style in order to best reach the people they need to. This also helps to create a highly motivated atmosphere, where team members feel valued, recognised and respected. Their sense of purpose is enhanced and, in turn, higher levels of productivity can be achieved.

Finally, empathetic leaders enjoy strengthened relationships with all of their team members. Every person understands and buys into the overall objectives, and challenges are collectively solved at speed because the foundation of trust has already been established.

What are the workplace consequences of not being an empathetic leader?

The benefits of being empathetic are clear. But there are also clear reasons why leaders should be proactive in ensuring they do have empathy skills. If you operate without empathy, you are likely to create a workplace with poor levels of employee wellbeing. Sickness absences may increase, and it can become harder to recruit and retain high-quality employees.

At the same time, teams start to become increasingly selfish in their outlook. This leads to falling cooperation across departments and a failure to see or act on the business’s wider ambitions. All of this combines into a potentially lethal treble of falling productivity, quality, and growth.

Empathy in leaders is critical for modern success

Leaders looking to improve their Emotional Intelligence should ensure they take active steps to work on and continuously develop their empathy skills. Doing so provides the foundation on which so many elements of modern business success depend.

Take a look at our Leadership development solutions and start your journey to better empathy.

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