Embedding empathy into the culture and environment of your organization has the power to unlock untapped employee engagement and performance, which impacts business in a positive way.

According to a 2017 Gallup research study, a more empathetic, engaged workforce could reduce absenteeism by more than 40 percent, increase productivity by 17 percent, and decrease turnover by 24 percent. Such employee engagement has the potential to boost customer ratings by 10 percent and sales by 20 percent, because your employees want to work and are passionate and motivated by what they do every day. 

In other words, empathy is not just good for society, it’s great for business. 

But amidst the hectic pace of competing organizational priorities and entrenched corporate culture, where do you start? A big piece of becoming a more empathetic leader is to work on yourself first. How is your self-confidence? What is going on for you right now? Are you being empathetic and compassionate with yourself?

Sounds a little woo-woo, but it’s really just common sense, similar to airline attendants instructing us to put on our own oxygen masks before helping others. To have empathy and, in turn, show compassion for others, you have to first do the same for yourself. Otherwise, as with the oxygen mask, you won’t have enough air left to be of any help to anyone.

In her book When Things Fall Apart: Heart Advice for Difficult Times, Tibetan Buddhist nun and teacher Pema Chödrön writes, “Having compassion starts and ends with having compassion for all those unwanted parts of ourselves, all those imperfections that we don’t even want to look at.”

Without a healthy store of self-confidence, it becomes much harder to be present, listen, and practice curiosity because we’re consumed with worry. When we’re so busy doubting ourselves and fretting over negative judgments, there’s no energy left to empathize with other people. According to Chödrön, “The only reason we don’t open our hearts and minds to other people is that they trigger confusion in us that we don’t feel brave enough or sane enough to deal with.”

In other words, we avoid empathy when we lack self-confidence and succumb to fear. On the flip side, when we operate from a place of solid confidence (not arrogance, mind you), we’re more able to hear and accept ideas that are contrary to our own. We’re not threatened by different perspectives or out-of-the-box thinking because we trust ourselves and have faith in our abilities. Without that grounding, empathy feels dangerous. With it, empathy flows naturally.

Beyond Buddhism, companies see results in the business world when their empathetic leaders are able to put ego aside and listen to other ideas and points of view. Stacey Engle, president of Fierce Conversations, says, “As a leader, when you are making decisions, it is not about consensus. You are tasked with making the best possible decision for the organization. You need to get it right for the organization as opposed to being right . . . This means being willing to be challenged and seeking to understand other perspectives. You don’t always have to agree, but you must be open.”

You can also bolster your confidence by engaging in these acts, big and small.

Set goals and track your progress. Sometimes we can’t always objectively see how far we’ve come or what we’ve achieved until it’s in front of us in black and white (or in color, if you’re into charts and graphs).

Celebrate your successes. Not just at the end of a big goal but at each milestone along the way. This is imperative for momentum.

Conduct 360-degree assessments with your team. This might seem counterintuitive: Won’t they just point out all my shortcomings? Perhaps, yes. But such exercises will also highlight your strengths. Outsiders can often pinpoint our skills and talents easier than we can.

Keep a “high-five” file. Tuck away all those meaningful notes of praise, gratitude, and big wins so you can revisit them when your confidence is flagging. I have a folder in my email called “Sweet Stuff” and one in my file drawer called “Inspiration.” (And yes, my paper file actually includes my college scholarship and acceptance letter . . . sometimes you have to dig way back, but do whatever works!)

Establish an accountability partner or board of directors for yourself. Find others who are where you want to be, or those who will hold you accountable and give you unbiased perspective. This is a great way to get honest feedback when your own self-doubt creeps in, as well as keep you improving, innovating, and growing as a leader.

Flip your mindset with a single mantra. Before a big meeting, take two minutes and say to yourself, “I’m here to make a difference.” Breathe. Ground yourself and then walk in. Lisa Earle McLeod is a sales leadership consultant and the author of Selling with Noble Purpose and The Triangle of Truth: The Surprisingly Simple Secret to Solving Conflicts Large and Small. She coaches her clients on this aspect and it’s a game changer. “If you think, I’m here to make a difference, that’s a different lens than I’ve got to get these five things done. You’ll flip out of yourself to the other person’s point of view, and you’ll show up more grounded and confident.”

Rock out. Play songs from high points in your life, like what jammed to in high school or when you first drove by yourself. While this might seem silly, McLeod consistently finds this helps her clients stand taller and muster more energy, because it brings them back to a time of extreme confidence. No harm in trying this if it works for you, so dig out those old Bon Jovi tunes before your next team meeting!

Empathetic leaders foster empathetic cultures. And becoming a more empathetic leader starts with your own self-confidence. Remember, leadership can take many forms within an organization, even if you don’t officially have a “team” reporting to you. Become a model by transforming your own behavior first and watch the ripple effects within your sphere of influence.

Edited excerpt from The Empathy Edge: Harnessing the Value of Compassion as an Engine for Success (A Playbook for Brands, Leaders, and Teams) by Maria Ross. Published by Page Two, Vancouver, Canada. © 2019 by Maria Ross

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  • Maria Ross

    Speaker, Brand Strategist, Author & Storyteller

    Red Slice, LLC

    Maria Ross is a speaker, brand strategist, and author who believes that cash flow, creativity and compassion are not mutually exclusive. She is the founder of Red Slice, a consultancy that advises entrepreneurs, startups, and fast-growth businesses on how to craft an irresistible brand story and authentically connect with customers. Maria is a keynote speaker on both business and inspirational topics, who regularly speaks to audiences on crafting an engaging brand story that drives growth and impact. She is the author of the forthcoming book The Empathy Edge,: Harnessing the Value of Compassion as an Engine for Success (A Playbook for Brands, Leaders, and Teams), as well as Branding Basics for Small Business and The Juicy Guide Series for Entrepreneurs. Maria started her career as a management consultant with Accenture and went on to build marketing and brand strategies for multiple companies, including Discovery Communications, Monster.com, BusinessObjects (now SAP) and other startups and technology leaders, before starting her own business. As a brand strategist, she has worked with brands such as Microsoft, Dropbox, Alteryx, Talemetry, and GSK, as well as many smaller leaders, non-profits, and entrepreneurs in niche industries. Maria has been featured in numerous media outlets, including MSNBC, Entrepreneur, ABCNews.com and Forbes.com and has written for such outlets as The Huffington Post, Entrepreneur.com, Seattle Business, Columbus CEO, Life By Me, and MarketingProfs.  Maria understands the power of empathy at both a brand and personal level: in 2008, six months after launching her business, she suffered a ruptured brain aneurysm that almost killed her. Her humorous and heartfelt memoir about surviving this health crisis, Rebooting My Brain, has received worldwide praise. Maria lives with her husband, young son, and precocious black lab mutt in the San Francisco Bay Area, where she enjoys hiking, CrossFit, red wine, and trivia games. Formerly a professional child actress, she occasionally dabbles in independent theatre and film, as well as voice-over work. Maria truly believes that storytelling has the power to heal, inspire and connect us all.   Sign up for your free guide, 7 SURPRISING WAYS TO BOOST YOUR VISIBILITY, and get Maria's weekly insights on creating an irresistible brand and life!