Empathy In Leadership

“Leadership is lifting a person’s vision to higher sights, the raising of a person’s performance to a higher standard… …the building of a personality beyond its normal limitations.

Peter F. Drucker

How do leaders build others’ personalities beyond their normal limitations? And equally important, how do leaders raise their own vision and performance beyond the limits of their own personality styles?

There are of course many valid answers to this question, but it could be suggested that all these answers should describe a mutually transforming relationship between leader and those being lead. Without a mutually ‘affecting’ relationship, where leaders are also lifted beyond the limitations of their performance and personalities, leadership is nothing more than a form of control or dictatorship. We have clearly seen in recent history across the globe that this style of leadership doesn’t work.

Mutually transformative leadership relationships are profoundly different from leadership that encourages people to “adjust” or “modify” behaviours to better suit the leader’s agenda and vision. At the basis of the latter form of leadership style is a basic lack of empathy.

Empathy in leadership is the capacity to be movedinfluenced and developed by other people’s experiences, perspectives and difficulties. It implies a kind of vulnerability and openness to others, which requires great strength and trust. Without this capacity leaders run the risk of reducing themselves to power mongers who are disconnected from the needs, interests and (importantly) the sources of motivation of their followers. When leaders are not empathically aware of what drives and motivates the behaviour and performance of their employees, they are not able to channel and stimulate untapped potential or address performance barriers at a deep motivational level.

Ultimately they lose touch with their followers and thereby lose their ability to influence them.

Furthermore, human beings do not trust those who do not have their best interests at heart. Empathy in leadership results in relationships where leaders truly understand their followers, and show concern for their welfare and development. This quickly establishes high degrees of engagement and cooperation in others. Empathic leaders, because they are open to be influenced by others’ experiences and views, are also in aflow of constant development and change that keeps them relevant and engaged.

Four Steps Towards Empathy In Leadership

Although empathy in leadership is a way of being and an ethical position rather than a technique or strategy, there are a few things leaders can do to develop their empathy in leadership competencies. Four of these are listed below:

  1. Awareness

    Empathy in leadership is not passivity or an inability to take a personal position. On the contrary, it requires a deep level of self-confidence andself-regard to let go of defensive and controlling leadership strategies. A high level of self-regard results from an awareness of one’s strengthsand an acceptance of one’s areas of needed development. Empathic leaders can therefore act with confidence and boldness in their areas of natural strength, while being open to the positive influence and support of their followers in their areas of needed development. The first step in developing empathy in leadership practices is that of becoming aware of your own personality strengths and areas of development.
  2. Show Genuine Concern

    As already stated, leaders who truly understand their followers and show concern for their welfare and development, quickly establish high degrees of engagement and cooperation. Developing the following behaviours will demonstrate your genuine concern for those who you lead: 

    • Give your full attention to individuals who you are speaking to. Make proper eye contact and stop what you are doing when having a conversation with others.
    • Find out more about your employees’ interests and activities outside of work. By showing interest in these areas you acknowledge the person’s value and significance outside of their work function.
    • Paraphrase and reflect back – when speaking to co-workers and employees reflect back your interpretation of their statements and views to ensure that you have understood them correctly. Allow the other person to confirm or correct your interpretation.
    • Reflect back feelings –by listening to others’ emotions (implicit or explicit) and reflecting back those feelings, you gain cooperation and engagement far more quickly than by staying purely on a ‘factual’ or rational level. People are generally motivated by emotional factors and feel more respected when their feelings are acknowledged. You don’t have to agree with the other person’s view, but acknowledging their feelings will make them feel safer and open to change.

  3. Support and Challenge

    Appropriate feedback skills are an essential part of empathy in leadership. It is important to affirm and acknowledge people’s success while challenging them to develop in areas of difficulty. An empathic leader will strike a good balance between challenge and support. In order to do this a leader must have an accurate picture of their employees’ strengths and areas of development. Comprehensive performance reviews and personality profiling are key methods that help leaders obtain this kind of information. As stated above, empathy and awareness regarding the emotional drivers of employees enables leaders to address performance barriers at a deep motivational level.
  4. Empathy in Leadership by Example

    Empathy in leadership results in organisational cultures of empathy. This means that a leader’s example of self-awareness, genuine concern, and supportive challenge will encourage others to also embrace empathic ways of working. The best way to lift other peoples’ visions to higher sights, to raise their performance to a higher standard, and to build others’ personalities beyond their normal limitations, is to do these things in your own life.

Empathy in Leadership – Emotional Intelligence (EQ)

Emotional intelligence can be defined as the ability to recognise, understand and manage one’s own emotions, and the emotions of others, in a healthy and productive manner. It is clear that empathy in leadership – defined as an awareness of and identification with others’ emotions and experiences – is at the heart of emotional intelligence.

Emotionally intelligent leaders instill empathy in leadership throughout their organisations. Find out how you can further stimulate your development as an emotionally intelligent leader .

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