14 Jun

“I Feel Your Pain…” -– the role of Empathy in Leadership

After Joe Biden’s Presidential win, a pair of billboards in Dover Delaware proclaimed, ”The People have chosen Empathy.” In every election I remember since 1992 when Bill Clinton became President, as a people we have looked for leaders who seek to understand “us,” to feel our pain.

There has been much research about the important role empathy plays in effective leadership. A study by the Center for Creative Leadership of over 6,000 leaders asserted that a leader’s level of empathy was positively related to job performance. Managers who were viewed as more empathetic to their employees, were more likely to be perceived as high performers by their bosses.

In a Google study of what makes an effective leader, technical expertise came in last but qualities relating to empathy ranked high.

In my own unscientific polling of over 100 managers in a series of classes I taught on leading effective change, empathy was consistently ranked as one of the most important traits to exhibit if you want to create long lasting change in an organization.

With so many organizations working virtually due to the pandemic—and many businesses predicting that they will remain fully or partially that way—empathy becomes an even more critical skill for effective leadership. Empathy is the glue to build trust among people who don’t have a tight physical bond of working together. Trust is the precursor for connection, engagement, and motivation.

The emphasis on empathy makes sense.  As a leader, success is no longer a solo activity. You must leverage—and inspire–the productivity and effectiveness of a whole team of people, all with different strengths and challenges, personal and professional. If you as a leader don’t know—or don’t seem to care—what makes each individual on your team ”tick,” why should they trust you to have their backs? I can recall leaders I’ve worked with who didn’t seem to care about me as a person and, even now many years later, I feel my own motivation to excel deflating.

In our mission-focused world, empathy may seem like slowing down, accepting excuses, weakness. It is anything but. It is a powerful and effective way to connect with people to honor the importance of their stories, and to find mutual solutions to empower the work that needs to get done, considering the issue at hand. Empathy is not being soft; it is actually being strong enough to honor another’s pain while also finding a mutually supporting way ahead.

The neurological basis for empathy seems to be the “mirror neurons” in the Anterior Cingulate Cortex. Mirror neurons are the reason we wince when we see someone stub their toe on a chair, as if we were feeling their physical pain. It seems that these mirror neurons extend to ‘feeling others’ in ways beyond physical pain. These mirror neurons, if exercised, can help us emotionally communicate with others going through circumstances beyond our own experience.

Think of the woman at the grocery navigating shopping with three kids under 5, seemingly doing nothing to control their rambunctious behavior. So easy for us to judge—Bad Parent! Yet, an empathetic view might yield overwhelm, overtired, trying to hold it together the best she can. Even as I write that, my emotions and interest towards understanding her shifts.

Or think of the elderly man shuffling along with his cane, taking up so much time at the check out counting change instead of just swiping his credit card. The emotionally bereft view: “Get going old man!” Or the empathetic view: “Here he is doing his best to navigate life with a failing body and now alone after his wife, who used to do all the shopping, has just passed.” For me, I shift from impatience and intolerance to compassion and expansiveness.

Empathy is not saying nice things or being nice. Empathy is the ability to be aware of, understand, and appreciate the feelings and thoughts of others. To Non-Judgmentally put into words your understanding of another person’s perspective…even if it is opposite of yours. An adversarial stance of two different opinions shifts to a collaborative stance of “let’s try to find out how we can both resolve this.” 

It is not sympathy. Sympathy has us feeling sorry for what has happened to others. Empathy, on the other hand, has us try to understand what they are going through, disconnecting ourselves from the outcome, but wanting to connect with them to find a way to acknowledge, honor, and support.

Five ways to exercise the muscle of empathy in your leadership:

  1. Make it acceptable to share emotions and points of view in your workplace. This is a culture shift that starts at the top with the leader.
    • Exercise this skill: Instead of leading the conversation, ask others their opinions, perspectives, challenges, concerns, experiences first.
  2. Find out more about yourself—your personality type, your core motivations—so you can recognize the differences in others. Often, we assume that others operate just like us. This blinds us to being empathetic to the unique way others experience life.
    • Exercise this skill: Work with a coach to define your values, strengths, personality type, and core beliefs.
  3. Take the “beach ball” view. Put yourself on someone else’s stripe and imagine what they must be feeling…and also what they need.
    • Exercise this skill: If you grew up on the blue stripe, what is it like to be on the green stripe, orange stripe, red stripe, or white stripe? What is that person’s world view, felt experience, hopes, dreams, challenges?
  4. Practice Active Listening skills. Most of us listen by thinking about how we are going to respond to what we think we hear. We only hear—and comprehend–25-50% of the words on the first pass. Active listening is a laser focus on what is being said and who is saying it. Without distraction. Repeat, re-phrase, clarify.
    • Exercise this skill: Put on a movie, turn your back to the picture. Listen for what is being said, and not said.
  5. Pay attention to the non-verbals. 60—90% of a message comes through non-verbal clues. Facial expression, eye contact, vocal tone, hands, manner of dress. “You seem tired today, like something is weighing you down. What is going on?”
    • Exercise this skill: Put on a movie and turn the sound off; watch the non-verbals to follow the action.

If you are hungry for more, here are five other Empathy practice ideas from the emotional intelligence company, Six Seconds: https://www.6seconds.org/2017/07/20/how-to-increase-your-empathy/

When has Empathy (or lack of) had an impact on your ability to perform your best?

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