Empathy: The Key To Leadership Success

According to Dr. Boyers, President of Rosemont College, “Business success depends on empathetic leaders” (Boyers, 2013). If empathy is a key to leadership success, why do only 45% of employees view their CEOs as empathetic (Business Solver, 2020)? What is empathy, how can it help business leaders and executives, and how can it help executive coaches as well? Continue reading to find out.



“Leaders with empathy do more than sympathize with people around them; they use their knowledge to improve their companies in subtle, but important ways.” - Daniel Goleman

What is empathy?

There are three separate types of empathy: (i) affective, which focuses on response, (ii) somatic, which focuses on feeling what others are feeling, and (iii) cognitive, which focuses on understanding. All three are forms of understanding “what other people feel.” Empathy allows individuals to put themselves in others’ shoes, have an understanding of their emotions and experience, and respond to others appropriately. Empathy helps people “connect with and relate to others” (Boyers, 2013).


What is the opposite of empathy?

The opposite of empathy at its core would be a lack of emotional understanding. Without empathy, executives and business leaders who make decisions that impact countless employees would be unable to consider the emotional and situational reactions of employees during decision-making processes. A leader without empathy can potentially make decisions that decrease employee well-being and employee satisfaction, key determinants of employee retainment. Dr. Peter Shear claims that when leaders are not empathetic, they are more likely to face miscommunications, develop poor relationships, and have toxic workplace cultures (Shear, 2021).


“Empathy is a quality of character that can change the world.” - Barack Obama

How empathy helps executive coaches

Because empathy helps with the understanding of, and relation to, others’ emotions, executive coaches can benefit greatly from the development of empathy.


By having empathy, executive coaches are able to combine “both the emotional and the logical rationale that goes into every decision” that is made with a client (Boyersm 2013). An executive coaching company, The Leadership Sphere, summarized this well in their recent article entitled, “Why Empathy is the Most Important Executive Coaching Skill.” They state that by “allowing the client to guide conversation through listening and empathizing, coaches can assist leaders in gaining clarity on where to prioritize their attention… The personal relationship formed between coach and client is one based on empathy and trust.”


Empathy can help executive coaches understand the stress and fears of their clients. This understanding can help bring the best insight and guidance at just the right time. Dr. Mark Rittenberg shares an example of this in his TEDTalk, “Leadership is Love.” In his speech, he shares the story of a leader who overcame his faults through the communication of empathy and understanding from his co-workers and superiors. After this business leader shared his story and struggles with others, he experienced empathy and realized his faults as a leader. He even called the experience “a wake-up call” (2017). Executive coaches can harness this power of empathy in their coaching, inspiring “wake-up” calls in their clients and encouraging them to accomplish their goals.


How empathy helps executives

Dr. Mark Rittenberg quotes a fellow teacher and friend when he shares that “leadership is love” (2017). Being empathetic is a form of love towards others. It is being intentional about understanding others’ emotions and responding to their situations with their emotional needs in mind. According to TEDTalks writer, Jennifer Caleshu, “Bringing empathy into relationships results in new levels of understanding and appreciation of one another and results in heightened communication, partnership, and collaboration in both professional and personal life” (2017).


Currently, only 48% of employees believe that their companies are empathetic as a whole. CEOs however are 20% more optimistic about the empathy of their company (Business Solver, 2020). Although business leaders might not know it, there is a need for progress when it comes to corporate empathy. Research has shown that empathy has been consistently linked to business impact and employee wellbeing. “74% of employees said they would work longer hours for an empathetic employer, and 80% said they would switch companies for equal pay if the employer were more empathetic.” Furthermore, “83% of Gen Z employees would choose an employer with a strong culture of empathy over an employer offering a slightly higher salary.” Research has also shown that “employees view motivation, productivity and lower turnover as key benefits of empathetic workplaces” (Business Solver, 2020). The number one prevention of workplace burnout is a business leader’s empathy (Court, 2021).


These statistics reveal that the empathetic executive is the employee-preferred executive. Empathetic CEOs are more liked by their employees, their employees are less likely to leave their leadership for more empathetic positions, and are more likely to work longer hours. Empathetic CEOs create devoted employees. Executives who embrace empathy are better able to lead their employees with an understanding of their emotions, challenges, and needs. Empathetic executives are able to put themselves in the shoes of their employees, meet their needs, and better their businesses by bettering their employees.


“Leadership is about empathy. It is about having the ability to relate to and connect with people for the purpose of inspiring and empowering their lives.” - Oprah Winfrey

How to develop empathy

Empathy is an intentional habit, cultivated over time (Dr. Krznaric, 2012). With intentional thought and practice, empathetic habits and abilities can be strengthened over time. Consider the following tips and tricks for developing empathy.

  1. Watch for signs of burnout. Workplace burnout is a drastic problem for employees and employers alike amidst the COVID-19 pandemic. The Center for Creative Leadership recommends that in times of high stress, employers should spend extra time and take extra care towards their employees; checking in to see if they are overworked and helping them with the causes and symptoms of overworking. When is the last time you checked in on your employees?

  2. Cultivate curiosity. Empathy thrives on genuine concern and curiosity (Center for Creative Leadership, 2020 & Dr. Krznaric, 2012). What do you know about those that you work with? Do you know more than their name and job title? If not, consider asking what they plan on doing over the holidays or having a candid conversation about life and work. This not only benefits your relationship with others, but it also increases the trust that your coaching client or employees will have towards you.

  3. Challenge prejudice. Dr. Krznaric shares that prejudice can “prevent us from appreciating [others’] individuality” (2012). If we cannot embrace others’ individuality, we cannot embrace their individual concerns, emotions, or challenges, which is a key to empathetic leadership. What prejudices or assumptions do you have about your employees or coaching clients? How have they hindered you from getting to know their challenges, motivations, and goals?

  4. Try another person’s life. Dr. Krznaric also recommends “experiential empathy” calling it, “the most challenging—and potentially rewarding” way to build empathy. In this exercise, you essentially follow the traditional saying, “walk a mile in another man’s shoes…” An extreme but high-impact example of this is George Orwell, a 1920s police officer who submerged himself in the life of “the oppressed.” He lived on the streets with the homeless and the beggars, made new friends, and radically changed his perspective on the homeless population. His views on inequality changed along with his beliefs and priorities. He ultimately wrote a book “Down and Out in Paris and London” (Dr. Krznaric, 2012). Have you considered walking a mile in your employees’ or clients’ shoes? What questions can you ask them to give you an idea of their daily life and journey?

  5. Listen well. Listening is vital to empathy development. Without listening, you cannot possibly learn about the challenges, successes, or emotions of others. This requires full attention and being present and in the moment with others. It also requires genuine response and vulnerability when showing your reaction to their stories and struggles. Listening goes beyond hearing and towards an intentional focus on others. Who in your life needs more listening attention? How can you learn more about your employees’ needs and your clients’ goals by listening?

Main takeaway

Empathy is an often underestimated leadership skill. It allows executive coaches and business leaders alike to consider the needs of others, meet others’ needs, and lead with success. As employees nationwide look for empathy, executive coaches can serve as a guide for executives by helping them develop empathy through intentional action and thought.


“Business success depends on empathetic leaders who are able to adapt, build on the strengths around them, and relate to their environment.” - Jayson Boyers

Resources

Boyers, J. (2013, May 30). Why Empathy Is The Force That Moves Business Forward. Retrieved from https://www.forbes.com/sites/ashoka/2013/05/30/why-empathy-is-the-force-that-moves-business-forward/?sh=172d9a3b169e


Business Solver. (2020). State of Workplace Empathy: Executive Summary: Businessolver. Retrieved from https://info.businessolver.com/en-us/empathy-2020-exec-summary-ty?submissionGuid=964be9c3-2749-429c-a0db-0ffe1b71d464


Caleshu, J. (2017, August 11). Leadership is Love: The Power of Human Connections: Dr. Mark Rittenberg: TEDxCincinnati. Retrieved from https://www.berkeleyeci.com/news-articles/2017/8/11/leadership-is-love-the-power-of-human-connections-dr-mark-rittenberg-tedxcincinnati


Center for Creative Leadership. (2020, November 28). The Importance of Empathy in the Workplace. Retrieved from https://www.ccl.org/articles/leading-effectively-articles/empathy-in-the-workplace-a-tool-for-effective-leadership/


Cherry, K. (2020, May 02). Why Empathy Is Important. Retrieved from https://www.verywellmind.com/what-is-empathy-2795562


Court, B. (2021, March 17). Emotional Intelligence in Leadership. Retrieved from https://www.ddiworld.com/blog/emotional-intelligence-in-leadership


Krznaric, R., Dr. (2012, November 27). Six Habits of Highly Empathic People. Retrieved from https://greatergood.berkeley.edu/article/item/six_habits_of_highly_empathic_people1


Sear, P., Dr. (2021, March 9). 3 Consequences of a Lack of Empathy in Leadership. Retrieved from https://www.psychologytoday.com/us/blog/empathic-minds/202103/3-consequences-lack-empathy-in-leadership


The Leadership Sphere. (2021, April 23). Why Empathy is the Most Important Executive Coaching Skill. Retrieved from https://theleadershipsphere.com.au/blog/2021/03/04/why-empathy-is-the-most-important-executive-coaching-skill/


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