What is empathy?

Empathy is the degree to which a person is in touch with the feelings of others. It is a dimension of emotional intelligence and can have a massive impact on emotional engagement of employees at both an individual level but also at an organisational level.  The degree to which a leader is in touch with the feelings of others will be based on how aware they are of themselves - their emotions from a physiology perspective, their feelings, intuitions and to some degree, their thoughts.  From an organisational perspective, engagement surveys regularly check and measure how people feel and provide a significant amount of information that assesses this. The challenge with this is that once an organisation has this information, it needs to do something different to make changes, if appropriate, based on what it has learned.

How can we use empathy to work differently?


In my experience this exercise is often executed by the HR team who then partner with the business to set about transforming areas of dissatisfaction.  Imagine if this was turned on its head and leaders made it their priority to become more aware of themselves in order to be more aware of others?  This is when it becomes really important to start with exploring the attitudes we hold about ourselves and others first.

'If, as a leader, I'm operating from a place of absolute respect for myself and my employees, regardless of business results, I am more likely to empathise and create an emotionally engaged and emotionally fit, inclusive and collaborative organisation which will have a huge impact on business results.'

Starting from this basis, research has repeatedly shown that an emotionally intelligent leader impacts performance more than a leader who has high IQ.  In fact, ninety percent of high performers have high EI.

Organisations which focus on development programmes that start by looking at our attitudes can then create self awareness, and develop more empathetic leaders who can harness their own behaviours to manage themselves and the relationships they have with others better.

How can empathy play a role in developing leaders and in keeping employees engaged?

The more aware I am of myself, the more attuned with others I am likely to be. Being able to create an emotionally intelligent team climate keeps employees engaged. It is a common fact that individuals are engaged by their direct line manager. Whilst a brand and the promise of career progression will initially attract someone to an organisation they will stay because of the person they work for and the value/importance that particular leader places on being able to walk in their team member's shoes. In order to create the right vision, collaborative, trusting and inclusive working starts with empathy. Being self aware and aware of others allows a leader to engage on an emotional level and adapt their style of leadership to the individual and team. Empathy allows leaders to connect at a human level and handle conflict constructively. All of these behaviours are dimensions of EI.

Developing empathy in leaders positively impacts business results

Research by Daniel Goleman shows that ninety per cent of high performers have high emotional intelligence. Fifty-eight per cent of job performance is as a result of emotional intelligence. The ability to empathise and walk in others' shoes helps develop positive relationships both internally within organisations and teams and also externally with customers. Business is all about relationships and people. Whilst organisations might have fantastic products it is their people or marketing teams that create emotional attachments to them. People want to trust products and want to know what it feels like to experience either a product or service. Empathy plays a key role in allowing businesses to tailor their products to their consumers. Consumer insights create awareness of customers which then allows a business to tailor its product or service to that audience. The same is true in leadership. If a leader is able to connect and empathise at a human level with members of their team, this builds trust and engagement and ultimately improves business results.

Practical tips on developing empathy for leadership

  1. Develop your own self-regard and self-awareness. Spend time reflecting on what you do well and what you need to develop as a leader.
  2. Know your own personality preference and be really clear about how you can flex your style in order to improve your empathy towards others. If you make decisions from a logical, facts-based perspective, think about what you need to do to problem solve from a more values-based, feelings perspective.
  3. Simple as it sounds, ask lots and lots of questions to become more aware of others - their drivers, motivations, likes, dislikes and learn to see their perspective on situations.
  4. Understand your emotions - if you suppress them it will limit your potential. Your emotions inform your feelings, thoughts and behaviours - they are a really useful source of information if you listen to them. If you are more extrovert and tend to 'act, think, act' - try to develop a more introvert preference - 'think, act, think.' Yale University have recently launched the RULER programme in schools and institutions - R recognise emotions, U - understand them, L - label them, E - express them and R - regulate them. If you struggle with this they have developed a simple app called the Yale Mood App. Try it.
  5. Practise mindfulness or meditation and focus on renewal. Meditation or mindfulness is a discipline that allows you to go within yourself and become more aware. Try headspace.
  6. Listen to non-verbal as well as verbal communication - using intuition to feel the vibe, energy and happiness of an employee will allow leaders to fully empathise and make decisions by understanding another perspective.

Amanda Wildman - Director of Emotionally-i-Fit is an expert in Emotional Intelligence and leadership development. 

Emotionally-i-Fit runs assessments, coaching programmes, workshops and leadership retreats that help leaders and organisations to measure and develop the 16 metrics of Emotional Intelligence.