By ROSHAN THIRAN
The evolution of leadership has, thankfully, shifted from ‘The Great Man’ style of leading, where one person is in charge and understood to call all the shots, to a more collaborative relationship between leaders and their team that comes with the message, “Let’s figure this out together.”
Collaboration is a wonderful approach in today’s competitive market. From a business perspective, the array of ideas and solutions offered up by more than one or two people often yield the kinds of positive results that would take much longer to think up by just one person ruminating at their desk.
However, when we seek to collaborate with others, there’s one key resource from the emotional intelligence toolbox that often gets overlooked: empathy. It seems so obvious – how can we work well alongside others if we neglect to connect with them and make an effort to see things from their perspective, presuming instead that everyone is automatically on the same wavelength?
You might want to hear this out:
Writing on empathy for the Harvard Business Review, Earnest J. Wilson III of the University of California drives home the importance of this key skill in leaders and notes:
“According to an unpublished survey of our graduates over the past 10 years who now occupy professional positions, empathy is most lacking among middle managers and senior executives: the very people who need it most because their actions affect such large numbers of people.”
What is empathy?
According to Paul Ekman – a world expert on emotions – there are three kinds of empathy, which are:
- Cognitive empathy
When we tune into how someone might be feeling and what thoughts might be running through their mind.
- Emotional empathy
When we can actually tap into and feel what the other person is feeling: this is a skill that doctors and nurses, for example, would have cultivated during time spent with patients under their care.
- Compassionate empathy
The most holistic form of empathy. Not only are we aware of how someone may be feeling and attuned to their emotions, but we are also driven to help the person if needed.
Why is empathy important in leadership?
Before answering the question, it’s important to make a distinction between authentic empathy and how we might tend to view it generally. Authentic empathy, in my opinion, is when leaders make the effort to listen, understand and care, while being mindful of context and perspective.
Empathy isn’t about “being nice” – it’s about recognising the appropriate approach to take when confronted by the struggles of someone in need.
For example, the employee who is struggling in their new role, despite giving every effort to fit in and perform at their best, is likely to need the kind of support and guidance from their leader that is driven by compassionate empathy.
On the other hand, an employee who fails to pull their weight for no apparent reason and turns up late to the office every day will require a different approach altogether if the leader hopes to deal effectively with their situation.
In his book, Leaders Eat Last, Simon Sinek suggests that exceptional organisations “prioritise the well-being of their people and, in return, their people give everything they’ve got to protect and advance the well-being of one another and the organisation.” When it comes to leaders – whether of a small home business or an MNC (multinational corporation) – he adds that we all have the responsibility to become the leaders we wished we had as we went through our journey towards where we are today.
Bringing it all together
Whatever our leadership level, our relationships are built around people and we all want to work alongside those who make the effort to understand our needs, hopes, and desires. As is always the case, it’s the role of those in leadership positions who need to set the standard by leading by example.
Being empathetic towards others not only bolsters relationships and increases levels of confidence and trust, it also acts as the glue that holds a whole organisation together. Without empathy, everything has the potential to fall apart.
Roshan Thiran is the CEO of Leaderonomics – a social enterprise working to transform lives through leadership development and nurturing potential. Connect with Roshan on Twitter and on Facebook for more insights into business, personal development, and leadership. For more Be A Leader articles, click here.
Article first published on LinkedIn.