How to Lead with Empathy

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You’d be surprised how big of an impact the little things can have. When someone thanks you, acknowledges a job well done, or asks you about your weekend. Perhaps it’s that check-in from a colleague who knows you’re doing a tough assignment, or even just that smile as you pass in the hallway.  

It’s especially meaningful when it comes from above—we try harder for leaders who show interest in us as human beings. When they make an effort to support us, and time to listen, we feel valued, comfortable, and more willing to go the extra mile. 

These are truly empathetic leaders. 

4+ Benefits of Being an Empathetic Leader

Why is empathy a top leadership skill in the 21st Century?  

There are at least 4 reasons: 

  1. It makes employees feel recognized, valued for their contribution and more comfortable in their roles  
  2. Empathy encourages honesty and trust between colleagues, which reduces organizational silos and unhealthy competition 
  3. It can inspire teammates to collaborate more effectively, working together toward shared goals 
  4. When leaders can relate to their co-workers, it’s much easier for them to improve productivity and morale by helping out struggling colleagues. 

These benefits are just the start. Over time, empathetic leadership can be felt on an individual level as higher job satisfaction, lower staff turnover, and greater productivity as employees thrive in a supportive, caring culture.

Empathy = More Than Ever Right Now

I know for a fact that the world’s largest, most successful organizations make an effort to invest in their staff, and that includes developing soft skills such as empathy. So why are we talking about it now

Because it’s more important than ever. 

The truth is that organizations have been hit by the pandemic in more ways than one. As well as financial strain, stress levels among co-workers are higher than they’ve ever been. Between working remotely and job insecurity to the pressure of lockdowns and quarantine, statistics show that empathy is critical—because it’s an effective way to cope with stress

But…how does that work? 

Succinctly put, leaders who take an empathetic approach create a much healthier work environment than one where colleagues feel unsupported. By listening, caring, and being available, leaders can motivate employees and encourage greater mental wellbeing. 

According to study data, 78% of managers suggest empathy leads to higher morale, while 76% feel it has a direct positive impact on productivity.

5 Tips for Leading With Empathy

Clearly, any manager or leader who can consider their colleagues’ feelings, make them feel good, and communicate adaptively to increase mutual understanding is hugely beneficial in an organization.  

So how can you become more empathetic? 

Knowing your communication strengths and weaknesses is the best place to start. There are tests such as the Sfeer van Invloed 360º that can quickly reveal whether empathy is something you already show or if it’s a skill you can improve on.

If it’s the latter, or if you’d like to build on your strength, here are 5 helpful tips that any leader can put into practice.

1. Put Yourself in Someone Else’s Shoes

When you try to understand other peoples’ points of view, they feel more comfortable with you. It makes them feel safe, respected, and they’re more likely to cooperate with you, which is great for collaboration. 

There are two ways you can try to tap into someone’s perspective. 

First, by giving some thought to how they might feel: 

  • What matters to them in this situation? 
  • How have they felt/reacted in similar past situations? 
  • What is typical for this conversation partner (at home, in their role, or in their lives?)  
  • How would you feel/think/act if you were them? 

Second–and because trying to gauge someone else’s feelings is still just guesswork–you can ask them how they feel. Two much faster questions you can use are: 

  • How do you feel about what happened? and  
  • How does this situation affect you?

2. Give People Your UNDIVIDED Attention 

Taking the time to truly listen is one of the most important things you can do to become more empathetic. While it sounds simple, you can start by attending entirely to what they’re saying when they speak. 

Strengthen this skill by trying it out in practice for a week: Whenever someone starts talking to you, make sure you: 

  • Look up from what you’re doing 
  • Turn toward them and make eye contact 
  • Get rid of distractions like your phone, and 
  • Try not to think of other things while they speak, focusing only on their message and where they’re coming from.

3. Show Compassion 

Did you know you can give someone a well-being boost simply by showing them compassion?  

Being compassionate is as straightforward as being altruistic, or performing small acts of kindness. Like a muscle, it’s an approach that you can strengthen with practice. 

I’ve listed some small kind gestures you can perform below. Try to incorporate these into your day-to-day routine, and soon they’ll become a habit: 

  • Asking people how they are 
  • Wishing people good luck 
  • Smiling at them as they pass 
  • Writing a kind note 
  • Welcoming people when they join you, or even 
  • Saying thank you more. 

This brings me to my next tip… 

4. Show Appreciation 

Humans have a deep-seated need to feel appreciated, so showing your appreciation is a fantastic way to enhance others’ self-worth. It improves your bond with others, which does wonders for collaboration.  

So, practice expressing thankfulness when you’re grateful – phrases like “Much appreciated…” “I really appreciate…” and “What you did was important to me” are all great. 

You can also try writing “appreciation cards” like these downloadable cards we designed. Be specific about what you want to thank them for, then share them in person or online! 

5. Compliment People 

It sounds easy, but you’d be surprised how rarely we voice the good things we notice about a co-worker or teammate. That’s a lot of constructive feedback that goes to waste—so practice! 

Start by reflecting on the positive qualities and strengths of those you work with, and note down 5 genuine compliments for each person you’d like to praise.  

When it comes to making it meaningful, consider the following tips: 

  • Compliment small but worthwhile things, rather than saving them for noteworthy accomplishments. 
  • Give them freely, and expect nothing back. 
  • Be genuine—say what you truly mean and you’ll build true connections.  
  • Be specific, and use details where necessary to make it very clear what you’re complimenting. “You sounded very confident in your speech just now,” is not only more helpful than “Good job, but it’s also far more personal.  
  • The recommended ratio of compliments to criticism is 5:1, and we hold back valuable information more often than we may realize. So if in doubt…say it, don’t save it.  

Becoming an empathetic leader is all about practice. We recommend picking one skill and focusing on that first before moving on to the next.  

Good luck leading with empathy!

Nicolien Dellensen

Nicolien Dellensen, Senior Consultant and behavioral specialist and creator and owner of the ’Sphere of Influence 360º’ a comprehensive concept and (360) online tool about interactive dynamics.

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