A while back I wrote a blog about resilience being one of the most important qualities for today’s leaders. A number of readers agreed with me, and one went on to point out another very important leadership trait that often gets overlooked – empathy.
Most people don’t associate the word “empathy” with effective leadership. Business leaders are supposed to be tough, hard-driving visionaries who set a firm course for the company and then lead people in that direction with their charisma and force of personality, right?
Maybe in the old “command and control” leadership model. Not so much in the new.
Today’s leaders need a slightly different approach if they want to inspire and engage their followers. They still need the visionary and strategic direction setting skills. And they need empathy if they want to enlist others in achieving objectives.
So what is empathy and why is it so important?
Many people confuse empathy with sympathy. They see it as feelings of concern, pity, or sorrow for someone going through a loss or traumatic experience. In reality, empathy is simply the ability to understand and share the feelings of another. Note that this does not say that you have to like or agree with those feelings. Only that you have the ability to relate to others on an emotional level.
Today’s workers don’t blindly follow leaders as they might have in the past. Leadership requires building trust and rapport with others. If people don’t believe you can understand or see things the way they do, you will not earn their trust.
Fortunately most leaders, and in fact most people, have a healthy supply of empathy to draw from. Except for sociopaths, it’s hard to be human and not have at least some degree of empathy. The challenge for leaders involves taking the time to pause and use their empathy to build relationships.
Interestingly, one of the best ways leaders can demonstrate empathy is by exposing their thinking. I recently blogged about how exposing our thinking leads to better results (https://thehumanfactor.biz/2011/05/03/expose-yourself-get-better-results-by-making-your-thinking-visible/), and it plays a very important role in building relationships and earning the trust of others.
When we introduce a new plan, initiative, or change in the way people do things, we’ve already gone through it many times. We’ve had plenty of time to noodle it, discuss it with our management team, work out all the possible scenarios, and thoroughly debate the pros and cons. By the time we announce it, we’re fully committed to the plan and convinced it’s the right thing to do.
Unfortunately, we tend to forget that others might be hearing it for the first time. We get so caught up in explaining the “what” and the “how” that we forget about the “why” and the “how we got to this point.” Explaining the assumptions and thought processes that led to our decision helps people understand the “why,” which makes them more open to the new course of action. People also appreciate others just taking the time to expose our thinking, which contributes to building trust as well.
What works even better at building trust is asking employees to expose their thinking. After laying out your plan or initiative, ask for their feedback. For example, “I understand this is new to all of you, and I’d really like to know what you think about it.” As they give their feedback, don’t defend or argue your position. Instead, delve deeper into their thinking by asking, “What leads you to conclude that? Can you help me understand your thinking here? Where did those assumptions come from?”
As leaders, one of the most powerful and empowering things we can do for our employees is to actively solicit their ideas and input and then listen carefully. Today’s employees have a strong need to be respected and heard. Few things do more to fulfill that need than asking people to explain their point of view and how they arrived at it. When people feel respected and heard, trust grows in the relationship.
Asking people to expose their thinking takes time. It may feel like you’re moving through quicksand when you need to be running fast on solid ground. But getting people’s buy-in, trust, and commitment in this manner always saves time and energy in the long run.
In a world moving so fast, pausing to more deeply connect with others by demonstrating empathy is critical for achieving our goals. It’s also a sign of an effective leader.