In a working world where the lines between work and life are more blurred than ever before – thanks to the digitalisation acceleration disrupting traditional working hours and the steep increase in professionals working from home – it shouldn’t surprise us that the most crucial skill in leading teams towards productivity is not a corporate tool or Six Sigma technique, but rather a human one: empathy.
Recent studies have found that empathetic leadership is a key driver of employee outcomes across innovation, engagement and inclusion as well as fosters efficiency, creativity and revenue – particularly during a crisis.
In the age of the global pandemic and widespread burnout, culminating in the Great Resignation, crisis has become the norm in the modern workforce – so senior leaders cannot afford to rely on traditional management practices and expect the same outcomes from their workers. To stay competitive in the market and retain talent, managers will need to adapt to more human ways of leading – and those that do have a lot to gain.
Here’s why empathy is so important in cultivating productivity and high performance in your team and tips on how to practice empathetic leadership.
What does empathetic leadership really mean?
“An empathic leader is a leader who demonstrates care, concern, and understanding for employees’ life circumstances,” according to Catalyst, a global not-for-profit thought leadership organisation with a mission to advance women in the workplace.
Empathetic leaders have certain traits in common: they are open, transparent, fair, trusted to handle difficult conversations, follow through on actions and encourage others to share their opinions. Although it comes more naturally to some, empathy is not an innate quality but rather, a human skill that can be developed, practiced and honed.
“When members of your team don’t feel they are being heard or understood, they are less likely to feel at ease, fulfilled or invested in their work...none of which are good for the employee, leadership or the business."
“Empathetic leadership goes hand-in-hand with creating a psychologically safe environment, where people feel they can be themselves without fear of being harshly judged or laughed at,” said accredited career coach and founder of Leap of Thought, Keren Blackmore.
“When members of your team don’t feel they are being heard or understood, they are less likely to feel at ease, fulfilled or invested in their work. They will feel less engaged, less likely to tell you about the real issues they are facing and are ultimately more likely to leave – none of which are good for the employee, leadership or the business,” said Keren.
In its survey of nearly a thousand workers in the US, Catalyst’s findings revealed that employees with empathetic managers are more innovative and engaged in their work than those managed with less empathetic leadership.
“61% of people with highly empathic senior leaders report often or always being innovative at work compared to only 13% of people with less empathic senior leaders. 76% of people with highly empathic senior leaders report often or always being engaged, compared to only 32% of people with less empathic senior leaders,” the research cites.
And empathy could be the key to advancing diversity in the workforce as well.
“Leading with empathy allows senior leaders to play a unique role in employee retention in a way that direct managers do not. Specifically, increased senior leader empathy predicts decreased intent to leave for women of colour. The data did not show the same relationship for men of colour, White women, or White men,” according to the Catalyst study.
Plus, workers feel more loyalty towards their empathetic leaders. A new study from EY found that: “90% of US workers believe empathetic leadership leads to higher job satisfaction and 79% agree it decreases employee turnover… a staggering 89% of employees agree that empathy leads to better leadership.”
Employees agree that mutual empathy between workers and managers overwhelmingly improves business outcomes across efficiency, innovation and company revenue. Ultimately, empathetic leadership decreases burnout and staff turnover and at the same time fosters inclusion, drives productivity, facilitates work-life integration and builds positive work culture – leading to a more efficient, functional and profitable business.
These are Keren’s top ways to practice empathetic leadership in your own team:
Actively and regularly check in with your employees. It may seem simple but take the time to ask your employees how they are doing and pause to really listen, rather than diving straight into work topics. Listening can help build rapport, trust and psychological safety. Observe telling body language and nonverbal cues too.
Get to know your people. What do they like, what frustrates them and what motivates them? Learn your team’s identity beyond work, as humans, to help them feel more comfortable being themselves on the job.
What are your employees feeling or thinking? How can you show that you understand? The more connected you are to how your team is feeling, the better you can support their needs. Pro tip: use a tool to collect anonymous feedback.
The best leaders support and coach their employees towards finding new or better solutions to their own challenges. When your employees talk about why they feel challenged, help them find a solution.
5. Get real:
If you want your team to share what is going on with them, get comfortable being vulnerable yourself. As Brené Brown says: vulnerability with boundaries. This is not over-sharing or throwing away your credibility; it’s about sharing when things have felt challenging or that you won’t be in to attend your son’s sports day.
6. Share together:
Foster an empathetic culture in which your team feels heard by each other, not just by leadership. Get your team together and ask everyone to share something they bring to the team, something that frustrates them about others and what they are most proud achieving. It’s an effective way for team members to feel heard and understood and you’ll learn more about them too.
When it comes to empathetic leadership, Oprah Winfrey said it best: “Leadership is about empathy. It is about having the ability to relate to and connect with people for the purpose of inspiring and empowering their lives.”