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Empathy and Leadership: How They Interact


Before exploring the link between empathy and leadership, we should define empathy, which is often confused with sympathy.

Empathy is the ability to feel and relate to someone else's emotions, thoughts, attitudes and experiences. Sympathy, however, is the ability to support others in a compassionate and sensitive way. Whereas empathy requires you to be in the other person's shoes, sympathy is about feeling sorry for others in their time of difficulty.

Great leadership demands more than sympathy to employees' plights. It also requires you to be aware of your employees' needs and to care about them as people. By understanding where your employees are coming from, the stage is set for real change. As stated by Western Governors University, empathy allows leaders to connect with their people — which in turn improves loyalty, productivity and profitability.

Empathy is a trait and a skill. 
Empathy can be innate, and it can be learned, which makes it both a trait and a skill. While some people are naturally empathetic, others find it harder to express empathy. According to the Center for Creative Leadership, "Most leaders fall in the middle and are sometimes or somewhat empathetic."

Leaders who are short on empathy may improve their empathy skills via training or developmental opportunities. Conversely, leaders with an abundance of empathy should be taught how to maintain a balance between being empathetic and objective. 

Empathy is tied to job performance.
Per a CCL survey, empathy has a positive connection to job performance. Specifically, managers who demonstrate more empathy toward their subordinates "are viewed as better performers in their job by their bosses."  
These managers exhibit empathy by:

  • Being good listeners.
  • Paying attention to verbal and nonverbal cues.
  • Considering their employees' perspective, even if they don't agree.
  • Avoiding snap judgments.
  • Cultivating compassion.

Notably, a report by Development Dimensions International found that leaders who respond with empathy perform over 40% higher when it comes to overall performance, engaging others, coaching, decision-making, planning and organization. 

As noted by DDI's Senior VP Richard S. Wellins, "Being able to listen and respond with empathy is overwhelmingly the one interaction skill that outshines all other skills leaders need to be successful."

Empathy is trending.  
To attract and retain talent, employers are becoming more empathetic. The Society for Human Resource Management says that going forward, more companies will try to understand their job candidates and employees "more deeply." To meet this objective, employers are:

  • Collaborating with employees to create a personalized employee experience.
  • Utilizing talent analytics to increase retention, lower turnover and enhance operational decision-making.
  • Recruiting from within to support employee growth.

It's up to organizations to recognize the vital role of empathy in the workplace and equip leaders with the resources needed to achieve it. 

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Scott Johnson
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