Empathy: A leader’s superpower

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Empathy is simply listening, holding space, withholding judgment, emotionally connecting, and communicating that incredibly healing message of you’re not alone.” – Brene Brown

Sadly empathy doesn’t always rank high on the list of qualities needed to be a successful leader. Yet an unwillingness to place other’s needs and interests above your own erodes trust. And we know a culture of trust is important in any successful organisation and the ability to build trust is the hallmark of an impactful leader.

What is empathy?

Don’t confuse empathy with sympathy. If you are an empathetic leader you are adept at understanding the needs of others. Empathy means you are aware of and can tap into the feelings of others. It doesn’t necessarily mean you always agree with their views, but that you demonstrate a readiness to appreciate and learn from their views. Empathy is the ability to identify with and share another person’s experiences, ideas and emotions.

Can you remember a time in your career when you had an unempathetic boss? Can you remember how it made you feel when they failed to take on board your suggestions and ideas? Or even tried to understand where you were coming from? At some point in our careers we’ve all experienced the frustration of having a manager or leader who didn’t listen to us or try to understand us.

Unempathetic leadership doesn’t set people up for success, it doesn’t promote the kind of environment where people can unleash their potential. A lack of empathy hinders team collaboration, productivity and results.

Empathy is not about being soft

A common misconception about empathy is that it makes us soft or weak. According to a Prudy Gourguechon in Forbes, ‘without empathy, you can’t build a team or nurture a new generation of leaders, you will not inspire followers or elicit loyalty.’

It is people who deliver results. For an organisation to prosper, everyone needs to know that their voice and contributions matter. People prefer leaders who listen and who are able to place themselves in someone else’s shoes, rather than a leader who perpetually imposes what they know without attempting to see things from a different perspective.

According to Patti Fletcher in Entrepreneur, ‘leaders need empathy in both the good times and the bad because it helps them understand everything there is to know about the people around them.’

Why empathy will make a leader of you

Empathy is a trait that separates ‘leaders’ from ‘bosses’ because a true leader takes the time to listen and understand others situations. A true leader can give their full attention to another person, they spend more time listening than talking. With these different perspectives they can make the solutions bigger and have those around them feel engaged in the way forward. All of which will help make the goal and the execution of it more successful. By stepping into someone else’s shoes it’s easier to identify the best strategy for setting others up for success.

A good leader makes a conscious effort to see things from other people’s perspectives, they actually want to understand where the other person is coming from, what their motivations are and the challenges they are facing, because by understanding that they are placing themselves in the best position to help this person.

“Empathy is about finding echoes of another person in yourself.” - Mohsin Hamid. Click To Tweet

The reason why we forget about empathy in problem solving

As leaders we are rewarded for our decision-making and judgment and that means we can get too confident in our point of view and be in too much of a rush to get on with things. Effective problem solving is about dealing with people and taking the time to figure out what is really going on. Female leaders can use empathy to detangle problems. An empathetic female leader is not simply ‘nice’, we can show our aptitude as a leader by expressing understanding and addressing and acknowledging the concerns of others without it being weak or sentimental.

Empathy builds organisational and individual success

Empathetic leaders understand the importance of connection in the workplace. They grasp the role that empathy plays in building effective relationships. This type of environment encourages people to perform better. They are not fearful of expressing themselves.

As a female leader who can harness the power of empathy, you are in an excellent position to effect positive change. Empathy builds bonds and sharpens our ‘people acumen’. It’s what sets us apart from our competitors. To boost your empathy, start with some self-reflection. Don’t overestimate the number of people who share your own beliefs and opinions, become more aware of the experiences that have shaped your biases and opinions. Be prepared to let go of some of your perspectives that might have served you well once. Just listen. Take your judgement and critics hat off. It is our job as leaders to find and develop the potential in people. We won’t ever see that potential unless we exercise our empathy.

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