All resources on leadership repeatedly insist that having empathy in the workplace, or as an entrepreneur just starting out, is essential for displaying one of the most competent skills of leadership. Why is this so? Empathy enables you to know if the people you’re trying to reach are actually reached. Empathy allows you to predict the effect your decisions and actions will have on core audiences and strategize accordingly.
Let’s take a shared look at how being empathetic towards your coworkers, your employees, and your clientele can have a remarkable effect on your business operations. These are the points to consider for discussion:
- What is empathy?
- 5 essential cognitive capacities and personality traits that every leader must have
- How does the lack of empathy impact your business
What Is Empathy?
A formal definition of empathy is the ability to identify and understand another’s situation, feelings and motives. In business, these include studies that correlate empathy with increased sales, with the performance of the best managers of product development teams and with enhanced performance in an increasingly diverse workforce.
Indeed, empathy is valued currency. It allows us to create bonds of trust, it gives us insights into what others may be feeling or thinking; it helps us understand how or why others are reacting to situations, it sharpens our “people acumen” and it informs our decisions.
The 5 Essential Capacities And Personality Traits
What are the fundamental cognitive capacities and character traits that a person absolutely must have to fulfill a leadership role when lives and fortunes are at stake?
- Trust – In order to foster a business relationship, the ability to inspire trust and the ability to trust others is essential. The leader lacking in trust can’t form functional teams, is drained of energy by habitually feeling beleaguered and consistently blames others. Mutual trust is essential to the maintenance of an ethical climate in any organization.
- Discipline and Self Control – As a leader you must have the capacity to contain yourself in the fact of strong negative emotions and not resort to angry outbursts, blaming, or impulsive action. Self-control is necessary for a powerful leader to resist temptation, wait for additional information, think before acting, and avoid the abuse of power.
- Critical Thinking and Judgement – The abilities to assess, plan, strategize, problem solve and analyze are all dependent on critical thinking, which is perhaps the highest level mental function for empathy to reign.
- Self Awareness – If you’re a leader lacking in this trait, you’ll be blind to your weaknesses and biases and therefore unable to compensate for room to grow in any empathetic capacity. You cannot assess your impact on others and as a result your communications are confusing. When unable to monitor your own emotional state you are vulnerable to plowing into obstacles or creating crises. Having self-awareness mitigates these pitfalls twofold.
- Empathy – And finally, empathy, the capacity that allows a leader to understand the perspectives and feelings of others and foresee the impact of his or her actions and events on them. Effective communication depends on empathy. Adding the capacity to care about, and not just perceive, the experience of others creates a beloved leader.
How Does A Lack Of Empathy Impact Your Business?
Without leader empathy, team morale is fragile. The leader lacking in empathy is driven by his or her own needs and blind to or indifferent to the needs of others. Let’s be clear though, empathy is not the same as compassion, or caring about others’ needs and experience. Manipulative and authoritarian leaders can be adept at intuiting other peoples’ vulnerabilities and exploiting them, something that’s the opposite of empathy in action.
If you’re lacking in empathy, you can’t build a team or nurture a new generation of leaders, nor are you able to inspire followers or elicit loyalty. Empathy is essential in negotiations and sales and allows you to know your target’s desires and what risks they are or aren’t willing to take.
There is a significant business cost when leaders lack empathy. This lack of empathy is a major contributor to the tsunami of sexual harassment incidents that have dominated recent news and led to the departures of accomplished leaders. Commenting on an employee’s body or, worse, grabbing her or him and disrespecting their space, requires a failure of empathy.
If a boss were able and willing to put themselves in the employee’s shoes and understand how they would feel when subjected to these actions by a supposed leader, the boss would be far less likely to do what they’re doing and perhaps wake up to earning that empathy chip.
Empathy can be learned, to some degree. The capacity for empathy is an innate human trait, and like all of these, there is a spectrum of strength and weakness. Some people are more naturally gifted at quickly sensing other peoples’ experience. In fact, some business leaders have to be taught to put up an “empathic wall” which means too much awareness of other peoples’ feelings cripples your ability to make decisions that lead to disappointment or bad feelings.
Like the practice of self-awareness, empathy involves scanning large sets of data, sorting out what’s noise and what’s essential information, and making decisions based on this feeling.
If you’re naturally low on the empathy scale, at least know you have this deficiency and that there’s a cost to it. You can learn to check yourself and do what doesn’t come naturally. That is, before you act, school yourself to think of the people who will be affected and what your action will mean to them.
And try to remember to not just recognize but care about that impact on others. You can also make sure you have a trusted advisor who fills in the gap in your skill set, one who must be empowered to stop you if you’re forgetting that there are other people in the world and that their feelings and agendas are not the same as yours—and that these matter.
Essentially empathy is a neutral data gathering tool that enables you to understand the human environment within which you are operating in business and therefore make better predictions, craft better tactics, inspire loyalty and communicate clearly.