The ability to feel and express empathy is integral to how humans interact and communicate. It allows us to connect with others, extend grace and compassion, and understand where others are coming from. And it’s a critical tool in a leader’s arsenal.
Unfortunately, empathy can also be challenging, especially when you lead people from all walks of life.
You may be a naturally empathetic person. Or maybe it’s less automatic for you. Whatever the case, being in leadership can tax your empathy reserves and push your powers to their limits.
Researchers generally define empathy as the ability to sense and imagine what someone else is feeling or thinking. It’s a type of emotional intelligence that goes beyond sympathy—defined as feeling pity for someone else’s misfortune—as it requires putting yourself in someone else’s perspective to comprehend their emotions and experiences.
People generally associate empathy with feeling someone else’s pain, but that doesn’t have to be the case. You can experience empathy with any number of positive and negative emotions.
Empathy is crucial because it allows us to connect with others more deeply, fostering stronger relationships and promoting understanding. When we demonstrate empathy, we show that we care about the well-being of others and are willing to support them through their challenges.
When you think about the skills needed to be an excellent leader, you probably think about abilities like vision, decisiveness, and presence. Empathy may not even make the list. However, studies have found that empathy is critical for improving retention, innovation, and engagement.
Leadership is, at its core, about other people. Empathetic leaders are better equipped to navigate conflicts, resolve misunderstandings, and build bridges between diverse individuals or groups.
There are different types of empathy, such as cognitive empathy (understanding another person’s perspective) and emotional empathy (sharing another person’s feelings). Both forms contribute to our ability to show compassion towards others.
Dr. Paul Ekman, a pioneer in the study of emotions, breaks down the steps that happen when we empathize with someone:
Emotional recognition is the act of noticing that someone is experiencing an emotion. Generally, this is through facial expressions and non-verbal gestures.
After recognizing someone’s emotion, you may experience one of two types of emotional resonance: identical resonance or reactive resonance.
The final step of empathy involves feeling one of four types of compassion:
Most of the empathy process translates directly to the workplace, but a couple of parts are particularly pertinent to becoming an empathetic leader.
For one thing, identical resonance — physically feeling what someone else is feeling — is not always ideal when overseeing many different people. One person’s bad day can quickly become yours and everyone else’s. Ideally, you’ll experience reactive resonance, where you experience a reaction to another’s emotions but not the feelings themselves.
And when experiencing compassion, you want to land on a balance of familial and global compassion. Despite the recent trend toward calling businesses a family, in reality, your coworkers will fall outside of that bubble. Unless you are running a family business, you will likely never experience familial compassion for a hurting coworker.
An ideal balance is experiencing global compassion — how we feel toward the entire human race — with some of the personal element of familial compassion.
As a leader, you have a strong influence over your organization’s culture. You can cultivate an empathetic workplace by prioritizing employee engagement, well-being, and strong relationships.
An empathetic workplace has a number of very concrete benefits. Being able to understand and share the feelings of others leads to better communication and collaboration between you and your team members. When employees feel heard and understood, they are more likely to be engaged.
Mutual trust and psychological safety is another natural benefit of an empathetic workplace. When approached with empathy, employees feel safer expressing their thoughts, concerns, or ideas without fear of judgment or reprisal. Trust and psychological safety allow for open communication channels on your team and throughout the organization.
We now know what empathy is and how it should manifest in the workplace. So what’s stopping us all from becoming empathy machines?
First, it’s not always easy to understand someone else’s emotions, especially if they’re very different from us. In your workplace, you’re going to be interacting with people of diverse backgrounds, identities, and personalities.
Empathizing with someone similar to us is simple. Making that cognitive leap into someone else’s perspective that may be entirely alien to you isn’t so easy. However, to exhibit empathetic leadership, you need to be able to make those leaps.
Development specifically around diversity, equity, and inclusion (DEI) in the workplace can help leaders understand viewpoints and experiences different from their own and adopt inclusive leadership practices that encourage diverse perspectives can help cultivate empathy.
A more recent shift that presents a challenge to empathy is the rise of remote work. Having a remote or hybrid team that you don’t see in person every day can make the emotional recognition part of empathy particularly challenging. Observing someone’s body language in person communicates a lot more than a one-inch avatar of them on your screen.
This can lead to more impatience, miscommunication, and confusion since you’ll be missing some of the key information you pick up subconsciously. You may not realize, for example, that someone’s child is keeping them up all night if all you see is decreased engagement and sloppy work. You won’t see the dark circles and increased trips to the coffee maker.
To combat this disconnect, you’ll have to get creative and intentional about keeping up with your employees. Essentially, you need to figure out how to replicate the water-cooler chat that used to give us more personal information about the people we work with.
Don’t just rely on meetings to see and hear from your team. Make time for personal check-ins that let you talk one-on-one about more than just your projects. Put emphasis on office community that extends beyond seeing each other in person.
Ultimately, if you’re in a hybrid situation, begin with the assumption that you know a little less about what’s going on in people’s lives than you otherwise would.
Another roadblock to empathetic leadership is compassion fatigue. Essentially, your brain can get so exhausted and overwhelmed by consistently experiencing the emotions of others to the point that your empathy turns off. This term is mainly used in caregiving fields—like health or social work—but can affect people in any industry.
Leaders are especially susceptible to compassion fatigue due to the people-centric nature of their job.
Compassion fatigue can be a strange experience, especially since it tends to happen to those who are generally empathetic. If you feel yourself shutting down or unusually hardened to other’s emotional responses, you may be experiencing compassion fatigue.
The first way to avoid it is to consider your empathy a finite resource. No one is a bottomless well of emotional energy, so allocate your empathy accordingly.
For example, suppose your employee had a bad drive to work and is upset and stressed. In that case, you probably don’t need to expend any emotional energy trying to support them or make accommodations aside from giving them a few extra minutes to collect themselves before approaching them.
Managing how and when you expend empathy will leave you more prepared to deal with the more emotionally challenging things that come along.
Let’s assume that you aren’t a sociopath or narcissist. Sometimes, empathy just doesn’t come naturally to leaders. For example, you may struggle to recognize the minuscule facial expressions that communicate emotions or have generally low emotional intelligence.
Does this mean you’re doomed never to be an empathetic leader? No, but you will need to augment your complementary skills and lean into more creative leadership.
Empathy is often a catch-all term for anything relating to being kind. But while being empathetic is a skill, demonstrating empathy is an action. Whether or not you intuitively feel that someone is upset, angry, or burnt out, you can respond with kindness.
For example, if a team member has been consistently lagging on their assignments, it doesn’t necessarily matter if you’ve been attuned to their emotional state. You can have a conversation with them to get to the root of why they are behind on their assignments with the goal of solving their problem together rather than assuming they are lazy or otherwise purposefully negligent.
Approaching others with grace can get you just as far as being naturally empathetic and leaning into the structural changes mentioned above.
An empathetic leader is a strong leader. Emotional intelligence is among the most important skills in a leader’s arsenal. Fostering an empathetic work environment will do wonders for your employee’s happiness and productivity.
If you’re struggling to increase your empathy, AIIR is here to help. Our executive coaching service is designed to help you overcome any obstacles between you and becoming an empathetic leader. So take advantage of our data-driven, high-level coaching and contact us today.
Partner with AIIR to empower your leaders and ascend into the future.