By John Gatesman, CEO
In our high stress, fast-paced business world, being a leader is often identified with strategic thinking, decision-making, and of course driving growth. But there’s another critical quality I feel sets exceptional leaders apart: Empathy. While this may not be the first thing that comes to mind when thinking about great leadership, I’ve come to learn while running my own company in a very competitive and cut-throat world that empathy is the one quality that sets leaders apart from being good, to being truly great in leading individuals, teams and companies. Research also supports empathy as one of the most important leadership skills to possess. Here are five key things I’ve observed on why and how to become a more empathetic leader, which I hope you find helpful in your own daily interactions leading teams and clients.
1. Emotional Intelligence: If you’re in business, there’s no doubt you have read about the importance of emotional intelligence. It’s a crucial factor of having empathy in a leadership role. Leaders with high emotional intelligence are often pegged as being the most successful in the world. Why? Because you’re tuned into your own emotions and the emotions of others during your interactions. This ultimately helps me recognize and understand other’s feelings and needs and how to react to other viewpoints. By recognizing and validating these emotions with your own style, you’re in a better position to support and create an environment where people feel comfortable expressing themselves to you. EQ is one of the top components of being empathetic, which in turn strengthens company culture, relationships and business outcomes. For those wanting to learn more about how to become more emotionally intelligent and the importance of doing so, I highly recommend the book Emotional Intelligence, Why it matters more than IQ by Daniel Golman.
2. Active Listening: A cornerstone of empathy is the ability to listen. Admittedly, my wife might give me a failing vote here, but when I say ‘listen,’ it means much more than the ‘active’ part. Active listening involves sensing the undertones of what the person is actually feeling by how they communicate and what is actually being said. It’s accomplished by placing your judgment (and ego) aside, and allowing the person to feel they can share ideas or concerns without interruption and by a simple acknowledgement of what’s being shared. By doing this, you demonstrate that their perspectives and experiences matter. That they are important. Which ultimately fosters a feeling of being heard, feeling valued and establishing trust. Which leads me to my next point.
3. Trust: Empathy goes hand in hand with trust. And as sad as it may be, today’s society is making it harder and harder to trust others. The negativity spewed in our news and social feeds, the divisiveness that seems to only feed upon itself, and now the authenticity of news itself is being questioned. As a leader, it’s important now more than ever to create an environment where team members feel safe to express their thoughts. Building trust involves being transparent, showing genuine concern for their well being, offering support when needed and acknowledging their contributions. And on the flip side, allowing yourself to be vulnerable, which can be one of the most difficult things to do. When this happens, team members feel valued and heard, along with being more motivated, engaged and productive. And as a result, trust can be firmly established.
4. Perspective: Probably one of my favorite points I’ll make is perspective. Having empathy involves the ability to step into another person’s shoes and seeing the situation from their perspective. It’s equivalent to the “Golden Rule,” but from their viewpoint. Whether you’re leading a team, working one-on-one with another colleague, or interacting with a client, having perspective is a must have. This means considering diverse viewpoints, understanding different backgrounds, their life journey (including how they were raised), and appreciating the unique challenges faced by them. By actively seeking first to understand, you can make informed decisions, adapt your communication style, and develop strategies that benefit the entire team.
5. Relationships: Strong relationships are built on the bedrock of empathy. As a leader in your organization, investing time in building genuine connections with your team is important, especially if you’re in the business of dealing with people and personalities as I am. During the pandemic, we joined the ranks of other companies that lost the ability to make in-person connections. So we started implementing more frequent one-on-one virtual conversations to check on one another, which also served as coaching opportunities. And we’ve continued doing so even now that we’ve returned to a hybrid work arrangement. While we cover business topics, it more importantly helps demonstrate genuine interest in each other’s lives, and fosters a supportive and collaborative work environment. By demonstrating empathy in your conversations, you create an atmosphere of trust, loyalty and mutual respect, which ultimately can help foster better morale and productivity.
In our complex and interconnected life, the importance of having empathy in leadership can’t be overstated. By developing empathy, you can create a positive work environment that values open communication, trust, collaboration and personal growth. Ultimately, empathetic leaders have the power to transform a culture by fostering an environment of compassion, resilience and one of my all time favorites – grit. All through the power of empathy.