How Leaders Can Build Empathy

While having empathy is a key aspect of being a good leader, it’s not intrinsic—but it can be learned. Here are some ways leaders can build empathy.

At a time of widespread tension—say, a global pandemic—teams need empathy even more than usual.

And it’s a refrain that’s highlighted repeatedly in studies. For example, Businessolver’s 2020 State of Workplace Empathy report [registration] found that 74 percent of employees would work longer hours for an empathetic employer. In fact, more than 90 percent of employees, HR professionals, and CEOs have consistently said empathy is important in the last three studies.

Of course, simply hearing that you need to have empathy is one thing—it’s another to develop the skill set needed to lead in an empathetic way. Here are some tips for building empathy into your leadership toolkit:

Be willing to show curiosity when talking to others. A key starting point for empathetic leadership is having an open mind and being approachable. As author and philosopher Roman Krznaric writes in a 2012 article for the University of California-Berkeley’s Greater Good magazine, people who are highly empathetic are often willing to listen to strangers at length, which shows a strong tendency toward curiosity. “They find other people more interesting than themselves but are not out to interrogate them, respecting the advice of the oral historian Studs Terkel: ‘Don’t be an examiner, be the interested inquirer,’” he wrote.

This quality might be more difficult to project in a remote environment, but paying genuine attention to colleagues goes a long way. When a team member says something that piques your interest, follow up one-on-one. You can also make curiosity proactive: Reach out to people and ask what they’re working on that you may not be aware of.

Focus on processing what others tell you. It’s one thing to listen to what others have to say, but showing that you’ve gained something from hearing their insights helps to strengthen empathetic feelings, wrote Christine M. Riordan, president of Adelphi University and a former management professor, in Harvard Business Review. “Leaders who are effective at processing assure others that they are remembering what others say, summarize points of agreement and disagreement, and capture global themes and key messages from the conversation,” she wrote. “Sample phrases might include the following: Here are a couple of key points that I heard from this meeting; here are our points of agreement and disagreement; here are a few more pieces of information we should gather; here are some suggested next steps—what do you think?”

Get past broad-brush labeling of others. A recent piece in The New York Times highlighted empathetic skills worth trying from a variety of voices—including Krznaric. One person in the article, Instagram influencer and licensed therapist Nedra Tawwab, says that all too often, people are labeled based on one small element of their lives rather than the totality. Moving past this narrow view of a person can help in dealing with those who are labeled “difficult,” particularly when you need to form a connection with people who exhibit their own prejudices or biases. “We don’t realize how important it is to expose prejudiced people to things they might be unfamiliar or uncomfortable with,” Tawwab told the newspaper. “I think the exposure can be more impactful in terms of changing people’s mindset than arguing or creating a disagreement.”

When it comes to the workplace, this means getting past thinking of someone as a “slacker” or a “type A” individual. Look at that person as an individual, and try to understand the cause of their behavior. Doing so will help you see where they might be coming from—and how to address it.

Consider the language you use—especially in a remote-first environment. Traditionally, it was common for remote workers to feel like the odd ones out, but now that half or more of all employees are remote, that disengagement can spread. In a piece for Atlassian’s Worklife blog, future-of-work strategist Sophie Wade shares a number of ways to improve empathy in a remote environment, including focusing on personal communication. “Moving on from impersonal and imperial directives, leaders have to be open and authentic and adapt their style and approach for each team’s or employee’s specific needs and temperament,” she wrote. “This means communicating with extra sensitivity, since lockdowns, family tragedies, and economic hardships may well have added to a team member’s stress.”

When sending emails, take an extra moment to look for responses that could be read as curt. A quick, unscheduled phone call to an employee who had a small success—a strong member presentation, a delicate communication with a board member handled with aplomb—can assure team members that they are being seen as individuals.

(Kateryna Kovarzh/iStock/Getty Images Plus)

Ernie Smith

By Ernie Smith

Ernie Smith is a former senior editor for Associations Now. MORE

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