As a professional, I’ve personally witnessed instances of the positive impact of empathetic leadership. Unfortunately, I’ve lost count of the number of times I’ve witnessed the opposite, the downhill spiral that comes from the lack of empathy.
Let’s talk about one leader whom we shall call Bob. A few years ago Bob was hired to lead a team in the company I was working for. Bob was bright, energetic, and highly qualified. As soon as Bob joined, he wasted no time in getting to work. His mandate was to take our early state product division and drive it to market. Bob quickly got to know everyone, meeting with every team member, partner, and client. Bob then communicated a vision for the future in clearly outlined plans and he enchanted senior leaders as he made ambitious bets to grow the business. Bob tracked progress in detail and was ruthless at prioritizing. Bob quickly gained leadership’s trust and was able to secure resources and funds to take his organization to the next level. By all measures of success, Bob was acing it.
However, nine months after Bob joined our company, the team had gone from a high performing, tight-knit team into a burnt-out collection of folks who were discontent, disconnected and spending most of their time on job searching sites. Business results, which had been on a slow path upwards, started to go in the wrong direction and leadership was utterly confused. On the surface, Bob was doing all the right things, but as leadership started to dig, they found the business and the team were in worse shape than they had been prior to Bob. What happened? Why wasn’t Bob driving the business to success?
The answer lay within Bob himself. Bob cared very much about achieving business results, but that was all he cared about. Bob didn’t take time to make sure the team was on board and motivated to drive the changes he expected. While he was excellent at driving the business forward, he didn’t understand how to get the team behind him and without a team to execute on his plans, Bob was stuck.
Bob was let go right after his first-year mark and the program he came to scale never became a reality, being decommissioned not long after Bob left.
So, what went wrong? With so many good things going for him, how could Bob have failed? The short and truthful answer is, Bob lacked empathy.
Let me explain.
Leadership is widely accepted as the science of accomplishing work through others. If a leader is unable to get the team behind his or her plans, this leader will have failed at the most basic level of leadership.
Unfortunately, Bob’s story is not at all uncommon. Highly qualified Leaders can fail miserably by focusing only on the business goals and forgetting to understand how to motivate teams to follow. And here is where empathy comes in – studies have shown that if you want to lead a successful business empathy is critical.
At its simplest level, empathy is the ability to understand the needs of others. It is the skill of understanding and recognizing others’ feelings and perspectives and not just our own. Empathy is a key component of “emotional intelligence”, a term coined in the 1960s and developed by the psychologists Peter Salovey and John Mayer in the 1990s. An empathetic leader is especially tuned in to the emotions of others, using empathy to understand what others are experiencing as if they were experiencing that themselves.
Convincing Leaders that empathy not only feels good but makes business sense is not the most difficult part of leading with empathy. Most leaders can see the connection between motivating a team by understanding their needs and having a higher probability of achieving business goals. The hard part is not why, it’s the how – most Leaders simply do not know how to lead with empathy. “I want to be an empathetic leader” one Leader told me, “I just don’t know how to do it!”.
Empathy is about understanding what is happening for the person or people in front of you, and this understanding cannot happen if you are not fully present, giving the moment your undivided attention.
For most of us, our days as leaders are filled with a variety of crises and annoyances. There is always a deadline to be met, an escalation, a system that has gone down or some sort of fire that needs to be extinguished. However, no matter how many fires you put out, others will follow, there will not be a day when all problems are completely solved. Accept that you cannot wait until you address all the pressing issues before you can be fully present for your team. When interacting with your team, just drop all other priorities and focus on what is in front of you. It’s not to say it’s easy. Being present requires practice and intention. It won’t come naturally at first, but over time it is a powerful skill to learn.
Many of us fall in the trap that to demonstrate curiosity one should ask questions. It is indeed true that asking questions is part of demonstrating curiosity, but the main step of genuine curiosity is to listen, really listen. Roy Bennet, author and motivational speaker writes that we must listen with curiosity and that the greatest problem with communication is “We don’t listen to understand. We listen to reply. When we listen with curiosity, we don’t listen with the intent to reply. We listen for what’s behind the words”.
Listening with curiosity is an act of empathy. You are trying to see the world through another person’s eyes, and to understand their emotions. When we don’t know how to listen well, the conversation may not move beyond trivial chit chat. Leaders that are poor listeners won’t know what their employees are thinking, what’s troubling them or how to help them get out of a performance trouble.
In Tim Cook’s 2017 MIT commencement address, he warned graduates, “People will try to convince you that you should keep empathy out of your career. Don’t accept this false premise.”
Empathy is the secret weapon of any leader who wants to successfully engage teams around common goals, but it’s a skill most of us need to learn, and learning takes time and effort. You will need to be intentional about leading with empathy as it doesn’t come naturally to most of us. But the good news is, the more you practice it, the more natural it will become.
Cristiane is a writer and business executive who has led remote teams for over two decades, it was perhaps inevitable that she would end up at the crossroads of businesswoman and remote management thought leader.
For work she spends time running large tech businesses virtually. At home, she is a parent in training. Cristiane is passionate about women’s careers, leadership, and education. She enjoys writing about remote management, tech, and mindfulness. She is an avid outdoors and literature fan, and you can often find her out for a hike or lost in a book. You can join her free newsletter here.