• Julie

Leadership: Empathy and Compassion

This second article, and the Leadership Quotes series of articles, are my opinions based on experience and learnings over the past 20 years. See also Leadership: Protect the Team.

I have created a series of blogs which bring together some of the millions of leadership quotes we see across the internet, to elaborate on them and then hopefully provide some helpful hints on how to incorporate aspects of them into your daily life as a leader.

I now look at something which is perhaps (?) a little more controversial - Empathy and Understanding

The best leaders have a high consideration factor. They really care about their people.” (Brian Tracy).

“People do not care how much you know until they know how much you care. By establishing a relationship first, you qualify yourself to speak to truth into their lives, even when it may hurt” (John C. Maxwell)

I say controversial 1) because there are so many different definitions of empathy, 2) because there are people who believe empathy cannot be learnt, and 3) because some people argue empathy is actually impossible - that is, how can somebody really understand what somebody else is feeling…??

So, first let’s address the terminology (nos.1 and 3) without entering into an academic debate… For my purpose here, empathy and compassion simply relate to kindness, a willingness to understand others and to caring for others. The question remains, can we ever really understand what it is like to “walk in somebody else’s shoes” (empathy) when we have had completely different experiences in life? BUT, this does not mean we can’t have compassion and understanding in order to look at things from a different perspective. And that is what I mean today when discussing empathy and understanding.

It may previously have been thought a weakness for leaders to show care or to be empathic, but not knowing how to show care or how to demonstrate understanding is very different to believing it is not necessary. Today we know the benefits of empathy and “softer” leadership skills as they help to build connections between people. Therefore these are skills we all need to grow, because human connections bring improved teamwork, less conflict and a greater trust in the workplace.

So it should be easy right, after all we are all human? Well, empathy and understanding are traits that some people “just have” while others have to cultivate and practice. So, let’s look at further benefits (in case you are not yet convinced) and then look at how to cultivate, grow and integrate some of these skills into every day operations. The benefits are actually 3-fold. 

  1. for those showing empathy and understanding 

  2. for those receiving empathy and understanding 

  3. for workplaces which encourage this type of environment

Firstly, when you show empathy or are trying to understand by looking from somebody else’s viewpoint, then it encourages you to be calm and will reduce your own stress levels (sounds good to me!) 

Secondly, the benefits of being shown empathy and understanding? Well we all want to be heard and feel valued, meaning we will usually respond positively which grows a mutual respect and influences loyalty. 

Thirdly, it has been shown that an empathic workplace improves job performance (Center for Creative Leadership) and simply being aware and acknowledging that others are doing their best (even if it is not what you expect), or that somebody may need support or to be shown a little kindness, will go a long way to creating an empathic workplace and an engaged team.

So what practical steps can encourage empathy and understanding to be cultivated...

  • Get to know your team. Not just their skills and place in the team, but who are they? We all want to be acknowledged and feel valued. 

  • Understand what drives each individual team member. This will help in communication and will also give you insight into how the team might best operate.

  • Listen (and hear!) Understand what your team is saying and respond to what is being said. Consider things from their perspective as much as you can. How would you feel if receiving that message? What else would you like to know in that situation? Etc etc.

  • Never Assume (my personal mantra!) If you don’t assume, then you have to ask. This ensures clear communication and clear messaging where everybody has the same information.

  • Celebrate milestones and small wins. All achievements are worth acknowledging, but remember be consistent across the team!

  • Be Kind. Simply be kind and respect the individuals in the team.

So, it’s not impossible to show you care or to grow respect and understanding in the team. Maybe it is not true “empathy” but being kind, showing that you understand and taking the time to consider different perspectives goes a long way to building the empathic workplace that has proven to create more engaged teams and more productive environments.

“The death of human empathy is one of the earliest and most telling signs of a culture about to fall into barbarism.” (Hannah Arendt)

Look for the next blog on Effective Communication in Leadership,