Empathy is defined as “the ability to recognize, understand and share the thoughts and feelings of another person”. It helps us work with others, build relationships and, as it shapes our morality, plays an important role in the decision-making process. In general, empathy is necessary to develop positive behaviors that benefit society, individuals, and relationships.
In the working environment, displaying empathy contributes to positive results, among other things.
Leaders need empathy
There’s no leadership without empathy. It is the core skill for developing all social intelligence skills. If it was important in the past, it’s even more important now. It is well known that there are unprecedented levels of stress and burnout, with the consequent impact on mental health, turnover, and performance. And empathy can be useful in these challenging times.
Empathy can be cognitive or emotional. Both types involve paying attention to what is being said and done, listening carefully, trying to understand and not judging. At least at first.
Cognitive empathy refers to our ability to understand another person’s perspective and thoughts (if I were in their shoes, what would I think?). Emotional empathy is when we can understand another person’s emotions (if I were in their shoes, what would I feel?). In a sense, this is a step further. When we experience this type of empathy, we can either feel the same emotion as the other person, feel our distress in response to their situation, and finally feel compassion for them. There is a positive correlation between this feeling and a willingness to help others.
For a leader, developing both cognitive and emotional empathy is the beginning of being able to create the right conditions for people and teams to flourish.
As you may know, psychological safety is the belief that team members can take risks, express their opinions, admit mistakes and speak up without fear of negatives consequences.
As I said, a leader is responsible for creating the right conditions to get the best out of every team member. There’s no better way to do this than by leading by example, by being open to showing your vulnerability, sharing your struggles, expressing your beliefs and admitting your mistakes.
It can be hard for anyone to let others see the less perfect side of themselves. The path to more authentic leadership begins with developing empathy for us and others. We need to expose ourselves to difference, so we can do this. Paying attention to others allows us to be moved by their experiences and actively gain perspective. This is also a good way to reduce our biases, as we gain understanding of others’ situations and feelings.
In summary, developing our empathy is the starting point for becoming better people-centered leaders.