The importance of empathy in leadership

Yesterday I was reading an old article in Havard Business Review by Daniel Goleman on the importance of emotional intelligence in leadership. According to the article EI is more important than IQ and and technical skill, when it comes to the success of leaders. Goleman draws on research conducted on various companies and suggests there are 5 elements to emotional intelligence at work: self-awareness, self-regulation, motivation, social skill, and empathy.

All 5 elements are vitally important and create an important edge to leadership. I would suggest though that most leaders spend a lot of time working on 4 elements and gloss over one.

Yes, you guessed it empathy. Empathy is often overlooked in my opinion for 3 reasons. It is often confused for with other activities such as sympathy or pity, secondly for most people it does not come naturally and is difficult to achieve. Thirdly empathy is perceived as weakness and has no place in leadership. Many people believe that showing empathy means that nobody is held to account for their actions, or lack of actions, this is far from the truth when empathy is performed well.

Empathy assumes that the person in front of you has the capacity and will to work through their issues without you trying to solve it for them or judging them. Empathy is standing with someone, seeking to understand what is happening with them, without interfering and trying to create a solution for them.

When you listen and seek to understand what is happening you are in a better position to support them by holding them to account for their own solution, by asking them what their solution is and when they are going to start and finish. Empathy also creates the space where you can ask how you or others can support them to solve their problems.

Empathy creates trust and understanding between you as the leader and the people that work with you. Empathy creates a safe space where people can be vulnerable, and creative without fear of judgement. Empathy is a neutral position that sits with the person and will often help them find clarity.

It is really hard to do, as it can feel like a very passive activity where very little is said by the person showing empathy, it can often feel like you are doing very little. On many an occasion I have been thanked by someone for being so helpful and supportive, and I have thought to myself…”well I didn’t really do much….” That is the point really when you are being empathetic you sit with them, listening with fascination, and staying out of judgement, and confirming with them the emotion they are feeling. Being listened to when things are not going well is very powerful. Being able to articulate what is happening gives people the space to make sense of what is happening and find a solution to their issue, if there is one or reconcile their feelings about it if there isn’t one.

Showing empathy to people who work with you, shows them not only that you care about them, but that you believe in their capacity to do the job, it shows you have faith in them. Empathy is ultimately empowering for people, it encourages creativity. People feel secure if they work in an environment that is rich with empathy.

Showing empathy on a regular basis is a game changer, if you struggle with it, then start to rectify this, and start practicing empathy. The best thing is if you get it a bit wrong it is OK, you just try again, and the more you do it the better you will become.

If where you work has coaching, or leadership courses or programmes, make the most of them. If they don’t and you want to understand more about how you can show empathy on a regular basis, then get in touch.

Empathy is not just nice to have, it will make a real difference to your leadership and business/organisation.