How Empathy Helps Leaders Build Stronger, More Engaged Teams

What immediately comes to mind when you hear the word empathy? Do you think of it as a soft skill? Overly emotional? Something best left to the sensitive artsy types?

The truth is that empathy isn’t just for a select few. It is a key component of building trust in groups, and it’s a valuable skill for every leader. When you lead with empathy, you gain important insights into your team members’ perspectives so you can guide them toward more successful work relationships and stronger engagement in their roles.

Empathy says, “I see you and I’m invested in your success.” When it’s done well, it increases the likelihood that team members will remain satisfied in their roles and that they will produce the best possible results. Why? Because people tend to trust leaders that make them feel valued.

A study by McKinsey, for example, found that feeling valued by a manager, feeling valued by the organization, and having a sense of belonging were key factors in choosing to stay with a particular organization (or not). These things were even more important than potential for advancement, flexible work options, or meaningful work. In the workplace, that translates into higher retention rates, stronger engagement, and increased productivity.

But what exactly does an empathetic leader look like?

How Empathetic Leaders Interact with Their Teams

Empathy helps team members be more productive, encourages innovation, and facilitates problem solving. As a leader, it will help you connect with your team and get them on board with your leadership vision.

How does that translate into day-to-day interactions? Here are 5 key behaviors that characterize empathetic leaders.

Active Listening

Have you ever been in a conversation with someone who offered advice that wasn’t relevant, used your words as jumping off points for their own stories or opinions, or just wanted to argue? It’s likely that your conversation partner was listening only to respond, not to understand.

Empathetic leaders will take a different approach. They listen actively, seeking to understand their team members’ perspectives before they offer solutions. An active listener will ask clarifying questions, give the other person time to fully explain, encourage them to expand their answers, and try to understand the why behind the what.

Being Fully Present

Being fully present in a conversation is becoming a rare thing. We’re constantly bombarded with notifications, texts, emails, and hundreds of other distractions that keep us from paying attention to the person in front of us. Making an effort to be fully present in every interaction will help you become a better active listener, and it will show the other person that you value them enough to give them your full attention.

An added benefit of consciously setting aside distractions is that you’ll notice non-verbal cues like failure to make eye contact, nervous fidgeting, or tension. When a person’s words don’t match their non-verbal communication, you’ll know it’s time to dig a little deeper.

Promoting Diverse Perspectives

If empathy seeks to recognize the emotions and experiences of another person, then it’s important to understand that those diverse experiences bring added value. Research shows that prioritizing gender and ethnic diversity can improve the likelihood of outperforming competitors by 25% or more.

Empathetic leaders recognize this inherent value in diverse perspectives, and they cultivate the ability to imagine themselves in someone else’s shoes. They also understand that their own internal beliefs are not universal. They recognize that others see the world differently, and they consider those varying experiences as they generate ideas, make decisions, and solve problems.

Approachability

Creating a culture of open communication will help team members feel more confident as they share ideas and collaborate. If a leader isn’t approachable, employees will be hesitant to ask questions, request help, share their ideas, or express frustrations. This leads to a less productive, less motivated team and a more stressful work environment.

Approachable leaders welcome feedback from their teams and they are willing to be flexible with ideas and methods. They also know how to help employees work through problems, resolve conflict, and overcome failure.

Emotional Intelligence

Emotional intelligence is the ability to perceive and regulate emotions. Internally, it is the ability to recognize when an emotion is contributing to your responses and to manage that emotion in positive ways. Externally, it is the ability to recognize and respond appropriately to the emotionally-driven behaviors and words of others, de-escalate tense situations, and modulate personal emotions to resolve conflicts.

Emotional intelligence is strongly linked with empathy, and it is a skill that can be learned as you practice self-awareness, self-management, and social awareness.

Developing an Empathetic Leadership Style

Some people lean more naturally toward empathy than others, but that doesn’t mean empathy can’t be learned. Start by practicing simple habits like inviting others to share their perspectives, asking clarifying questions, pausing before you offer a reply, and putting your phone away during conversations.

In addition to these steps, it’s important to demonstrate to team members that their perspectives matter. Take note of their ideas, challenges, and frustrations, and let them see that you value working toward change together.

Working with a leadership coach can also help you develop empathetic leadership skills that help team members succeed. Our Make the Connection Leadership Series offers targeted course materials, coaching, and peer feedback to help you develop emotional intelligence and empathy within your unique leadership style.

Join us today to hone your leadership skills and become the best leader for your team!

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