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Empathetically Inclined Leadership

John Lambo - May 12 2022
Published in: Global Workforce
The pandemic has highlighted the need for empathy from leaders

Last week, Annie Erling Gofus, in her article The Great Resignation Has Not Slowed in 2022  said that the COVID -19 pandemic had created a desire for empathy in leaders. Empathy is often an overlooked and underestimated leadership quality. The pandemic has underscored the importance of building open and sincere relationships between managers and their reports. 

When employees do not feel this in leadership, their desire to leave is unquestionably exacerbated. Many individuals were driven to new heights of stress and worry due to the pandemic.  

Leaders should spend time comprehending people's issues and foster an open-door policy. Leaders need to lead strategically, tactically, and relationally.  Leaders need to be visible and genuinely interested in employees. Employees desire and deserve a leader who is real and approachable. 


Defining Empathy 

Sympathy, empathy, and compassion are terms that are often used interchangeably. However, there are subtle differences. Also, each term can be an end unto itself, or each can be used as scaffolding, building on each other. 

Sympathy means that you can understand what someone is feeling.   Sympathy is cognitive in nature and keeps a certain distance. 

Empathy is more emotional.  Empathy means being able to understand the needs of others. Empathy requires an awareness of other people’s feelings. In the context of leadership, it means you have to consider the emotional impact of someone’s work - not just measurable indicators of their performance, like KPIs. Empathy means understanding how a person feels and why the person feels that way.  

Compassion is when understanding the needs of others compels us to act.  For leaders, compassion may take the form of making concessions for the employee and making companywide changes that may benefit all employees. Circumstances, such as budgetary issues or setting a precedent, may prevent a leader from such actions. However, empathy is always a choice. 

Demonstrating empathy is what sets great leaders apart. It requires responding in a way that is understanding of someone’s needs. In other words, great leaders aren’t only understanding of other people’s needs; they’re respectful of them by showing a genuine interest in their employees’ lives. Jessica Mullins-Ta, partner with Berry Appleman & Leiden LLC, refers to these leaders as being “empathetically inclined.” 

“Empathetically inclined leaders recognize that empathy is an impressive quality to exhibit and manage with. Empathy allows even the most practical decisions that serve a basic business need to take on deeper meaning because decisions are made with employees in mind. Empathetically inclined leaders consider employees’ needs.” 

One of the best ways to consider employee needs is to listen to them. Leaders need to have good listening skills to empathize. When leaders listen, they make a connection with their employees.  

Listening to the people who work with and for you is an invaluable leadership skill -- and an essential duty. It demonstrates that you value the members of your group and your external and internal stakeholders. Together, such manifestations can improve effectiveness in your work and interactions.  

Listening attentively is actively empathetic by putting your complete focus on the person in front of you without becoming distracted. As a leader, you are present to listen, understand, assist, and support, not to advise, fix, or reply but simply to be - without casting judgment or the need to agree or disagree. Being present means allowing others to have their moment, which teaches leaders to be patient. It means putting others ahead of yourself, which can be challenging in today’s competitive workplace. At its core, leadership is ultimately about others and understanding their needs and concerns.  

The late author, Toni Morrison, compared the need to be heard to every child wanting to feel valued. She said that it’s like a child asking, “Do your eyes light up when I enter the room?” “Did you hear me, and did what I say mean anything to you?” That’s all they’re looking for. That’s what everybody, including employees, is looking for.  Employees want to know and need to know that they are being heard by the leaders of their organization.  

Empathetic leaders realize that employees have lives outside of work. They have families, financial concerns, relationship issues, etc. Each concern or issue affects the other. An issue at home will most certainly affect an employee’s performance at work. A successful leader will view employees as whole human beings, not limited to their position or their responsibilities at the company. 

Bill Marriott felt very strongly that the concerns and the problems of the people who worked for him were worth listening to and making provisions for by addressing them. By doing this, he was able to move from sympathy by listening to empathy by recognizing and feeling their pain to compassion by implementing tools within the Marriott organization to assist.  

For example, implementing a flexible schedule for employees may not have the full intended effect if too many restrictions prevent the measure from addressing employees’ needs,” says Mullins-Ta. 

Empathetically listening may be the most important and all-encompassing way to connect with your employees. When a leader is visible, available, and can genuinely connect with employees in the group and individual settings, even the smallest act of caring will have a deeper, genuine, and longer-lasting impact. Leaders may find that genuinely leading with empathy – by prioritizing the employee – may provide a strategic competitive advantage in talent retention, effectiveness, and employee turnover. 

Mullins-Ta will be facilitating a panel discussion and explore further insights at the Worldwide ERC Spring Virtual Conference May 17- May 19 in a session titled Secrets of a CX Professional: Tools to Lead With Empathy in Today’s Environment. 

For more information on the Spring Virtual Conference, click here. Registration is just $150 for the two-day event, and attendees can earn up to 24 total continuing education units for (S)GMS®/(S)GMS-T® and (S)CRP® recertifications through viewing the live and recorded sessions.