Empathetic Leadership is a critical skill that is increasingly being recognized as a key attribute for business leaders. Empathy allows leaders to understand the perspectives and experiences of their team members, customers, and other stakeholders, which can help them make better decisions, build stronger relationships, and create more inclusive and innovative organizations.
A new study of 889 employees by Catalyst found empathy has some significant constructive effects:
- Innovation. When people reported their leaders were empathetic, they were more likely to report they were able to be innovative—61% of employees compared to only 13% of employees with less empathetic leaders.
- Engagement. 76% of people who experienced empathy from their leaders reported they were engaged compared with only 32% who experienced less empathy.
- Retention. 57% of white women and 62% of women of colour said they were unlikely to think of leaving their companies when they felt their life circumstances were respected and valued by their companies. However, when they didn’t feel that level of value or respect for their life circumstances, only 14% and 30% of white women and women of colour respectively said they were unlikely to consider leaving.
- Inclusivity. 50% of people with empathetic leaders reported their workplace was inclusive, compared with only 17% of those with less empathetic leadership.
- Work-Life. When people felt their leaders were more empathetic, 86% reported they are able to navigate the demands of their work and life—successfully juggling their personal, family and work obligations. This is compared with 60% of those who perceived less empathy.
The Empathy Quotient (EQ)
The Empathy Quotient (EQ) is a measure of an individual's ability to empathize with others. It was developed by Simon Baron-Cohen, a professor of psychology and psychiatry at the University of Cambridge, and his colleagues. The EQ is a self-report questionnaire that assesses an individual's cognitive empathy, emotional reactivity, and social skills.
The Empathy Quotient is a valuable tool for assessing an individual's ability to empathize with others. It consists of three components - cognitive empathy, emotional reactivity, and social skills - which are all important for effective leadership in a business context. Leaders with high levels of cognitive empathy are able to understand and interpret the thoughts, feelings, and intentions of others, while those with high levels of emotional reactivity are more sensitive to the emotions of others and may be better able to build strong relationships. Finally, leaders with high levels of social skills are able to navigate social situations and build strong relationships with others. By developing these skills, leaders can create more inclusive, innovative, and productive organizations.
Cognitive empathy refers to the ability to understand and interpret the thoughts, feelings, and intentions of others. It involves the ability to put oneself in another person's shoes and see things from their perspective. Individuals with high levels of cognitive empathy can accurately identify emotions in others, anticipate how others might react to different situations, and adjust their behaviour accordingly.
In a business context, leaders with high levels of cognitive empathy are better able to understand the needs and concerns of their team members, customers, and other stakeholders. This can help them to build stronger relationships, communicate more effectively, and make better decisions. For example, a leader with high cognitive empathy might be able to anticipate how a team member will react to a particular decision or feedback and adjust their approach accordingly.
Building cognitive empathy is about making educated guesses. We often misinterpret physical movements and facial expressions; a smile can mean joy or exuberance, but it can also signal sadness.
So, before you engage with another person, consider what you know about them, and be willing to learn more. But keep in mind that your interpretation of another person's mood, behaviour, or thinking will be influenced by your prior experience and unconscious bias. Your instincts may be wrong. Don't be quick to assume or rush to judgment.
After you engage with others, take time to consider any feedback they provide (written, verbal, body language). Doing so will help you better understand not only others and their personalities but also how they perceive your thoughts and communication style
Emotional reactivity refers to the degree to which an individual experiences and responds to the emotions of others. Individuals with high levels of emotional reactivity are more sensitive to the emotions of others and may experience strong emotional reactions themselves. This can be both a strength and a weakness - on one hand, it can help individuals to connect with others and build strong relationships. On the other hand, it can also make them more vulnerable to burnout and emotional exhaustion.
In a business context, leaders with high levels of emotional reactivity can be effective at building strong relationships with team members and customers. They are often seen as approachable and empathetic, which can make it easier for others to share their thoughts, feelings, and concerns. However, they may also need to be careful not to take on too much emotional responsibility, as this can lead to burnout and decreased productivity.
Building emotional reactivity requires going further. The goal is to actually share the feelings of the other person, leading to a deeper connection.
When a person tells you about a personal struggle, listen carefully. Resist the urge to judge the person or situation, to interrupt and share your personal experience, or to propose a solution. Instead, focus on understanding the how and why: how the person feels, and why they feel that way.
Next, it's important to take time to reflect. Once you have a better understanding of how the person feels, you must find a way to relate.
Ask yourself: When have I felt similar to what this person has described?
"If a person says, 'I screwed up a presentation,' I don't think of a time I screwed up a presentation--which I have [done] and thought, no big deal. Rather, I think of a time I did feel I screwed up, maybe on a test or something else important to me. It is the feeling of when you failed that you want to recall, not the event."
Of course, you'll never be able to imagine exactly how another person feels. But trying will get you a lot closer than you would be otherwise.
Once you find a way to connect with the other person's feelings and have a more complete picture of the situation, you're ready to show social connection. In this step, you take action to help however you can.
Social skills refer to the ability to navigate social situations and build relationships with others. This includes skills such as active listening, effective communication, and conflict resolution. Individuals with high levels of social skills are able to build strong relationships with others, communicate their ideas effectively, and resolve conflicts in a constructive manner.
In a business context, leaders with high levels of social skills are able to build strong relationships with team members, customers, and other stakeholders. They are able to communicate their ideas effectively, collaborate with others, and resolve conflicts in a constructive manner. This can help to create a positive and productive work environment, which can lead to better outcomes for the organization as a whole.
To build social skills and strengthen connection, begin by asking the other person directly what you can do to help. If they are unable (or unwilling) to share, ask yourself: What helped me when I felt similarly? Or: What would have helped me?
It's fine to share your experience or make suggestions, but avoid conveying the impression that you've seen it all or have all the answers. Instead, relate it to something that has helped you in the past. Present it as an option that can be adapted to their circumstances, instead of an all-inclusive solution.
Remember that what worked for you, or even others, may not work for this person. But don't let that hold you back from helping. Simply do what you can.
Putting empathy into practice
The next time you struggle to see something from another person's point of view, strive to remember the following:
- You don't have the whole picture. At any given time, a person is dealing with many factors of which you're unaware.
- The way you think and feel about a situation may be very different from one day to the next, influenced by various elements, including your current mood.
- Under emotional stress, you may behave very differently than you think you would.
Keeping these points in mind will affect how you view the other person and influence how you deal with them. And since each of us goes through our own struggle at one point or another, it’s only a matter of time before you’ll need that same level of understanding.
Click here to take a quick assessment to find out more about your levels of empathy across these three components.
To learn more about applying empathy to strengthen your work and social relationships, reach out to Naluri’s career and workplace executive coaches or Naluri’s psychologists and counsellors via the Naluri app or web.naluri.life.