Empathy and Leadership: The Connection
Empathy is the ability to experience and relate to the thoughts, emotions, or experience of others. Empathy is a construct that is fundamental to leadership. Many leadership theories suggest the ability to have and display empathy is an important part of leadership.
Transformational leaders need empathy to show that they care for the needs and achievements of their followers. Authentic leaders need to have empathy in order to be aware of others. Several researchers believe that empathy is a key part of emotional intelligence that is critical to being effective leaders.
Empathy and Listening
Today’s employees want to be asked for feedback and they want to be heard. When leaders fail to listen, they fail to understand them or show appreciation and empathy for them. Effective leaders focus on listening with an open mind, welcoming and accepting sound recommendations from their team members and giving them the credit for it.
Empathy and Active Listening
Active listening engages all the senses, ears, eyes, mind, and “gut” to understand a speaker’s message. The active listener focuses on what the person is saying, both verbally and non-verbally, and also listens for what the speaker is not saying. An active listener creates a dynamic that encourages others to put all their cards on the table. The more the listener empathizes with the person speaking, the more they will open up and reveal their true thoughts and feelings.
Empathetic Leaders and Active Listening
“If you are a good leader, you are a good listener.” Empathetic leaders are great listeners who solicit feedback, listen to opinions and take action based on feedback.
Listening is an important component of competence in the workplace. Individual performance in an organization is found to be directly related to listening ability and listening effectiveness.
Most managers tend to rank their listening skills as ‘above average,’ but research indicates that people generally forget 50 percent of what they hear within moments of hearing it.
Active listening is paying close attention the content of the message and discerning the speaker’s feelings about the topic under discussion through non-verbal cues such as smiles, frowns, crossed arms, avoiding eye contact, facial expressions and other forms of body language. Good listening skills can lead to better customer satisfaction, greater productivity, fewer mistakes, increased sharing of information, more creative and innovative work. Many successful leaders and entrepreneurs credit their success to effective listening skills. Many top organisations provide listening skills training for their employees.
Empathetic leaders listen actively through observation of body language of the speaker, noticing inconsistencies between verbal and non-verbal messages, by listening to the tone, pitch and volume, by listening without interrupting, talking over them or finishing their sentences for them, nodding or using other gestures or words to encourage them to continue. The empathetic leader listens actively by putting other things out of his mind and focusing on the speaker.
The empathetic leader looks at issues from the speaker’s perspective, with an open mind free from preconceived ideas. Being an empathetic leader also means avoiding personal prejudices, being impartial with focus on what is being said regardless of the style of delivery.
Leaders who are effective listeners validate and ask clarifying questions. They do not make assumptions, but use the interaction as an opportunity to learn. Active listening requires a far greater degree of time and patience than traditional forms of leadership, but it also opens up new ways of looking at the world and those in it. It makes leaders more approachable and inspires honest conversations. Empathetic leaders are effective because don’t just hear conversations. They listen to them and link together pieces of information to understand the ideas of others. Empathetic leaders are profoundly present in the moment and acutely aware of verbal and non-verbal communication.
Many leaders fail to listen to the ideas, opinions and constructive feedback of others. Some use intimidation to silence “threatening” ideas. Others suppress ideas by dominating conversations and not allowing others to speak. Their fears and insecurities send a loud message that they don’t want anyone to disagree with their view of the world. This makes employees feel valueless and unimportant leading disaffection in the workplace. Bad listening makes leaders take lower-quality decisions, fail to sense a changing environment or know whether their customers or employees are happy. In an incredibly information-intensive, dynamic environment, leaders have to listen.
Most people under-appreciate the complexity of the skills needed for active listening. Ineffective leaders are bad listeners who treat conversations as opportunities to broadcast their own status or ideas and spend more time formulating their next response rather than listening. Many leaders inadvertently act as if they know everything important and remain closed to anything that undermines their beliefs.
- Richard Branson (2012). ‘Like a Virgin: Secrets They Won’t Teach You at Business School,’Penguin Publishers
- John Baldoni (2003). ‘Great Communications Secrets of Great Leaders’ / Edition 1, McGraw-Hill Professional Publishing
- Richard M. Harris, (2006). ‘The Listening Leader: Powerful New Strategies for Becoming an Influential Communicator’; ABC-CLIO, Incorporated