Are You Confusing Empathy with Being a Pushover?

Companies and industries change and with them the skills required for leaders to be effective. One such skill that is becoming ever more desirable, not just for leaders, but for all employees, is empathy. It’s a term that you have likely heard thousands of times but is often confused with its sister – sympathy. Sympathy is feeling compassion, sorrow or pity for the hardships of another person and truly taking on their emotions, whereas empathy is simply putting yourself in another’s shoes. Empathy is the ability to relate to the thoughts, emotions, or experiences of others without taking on the weight of their emotions. It’s also the ability to lead by understanding others’ thoughts, perspectives, and feelings. This is an important distinction with the implications that I will discuss later. As younger generations enter the workforce, companies become more diverse, and mergers become more prominent and impact company culture, the emphasis on leaders’ ability to build and maintain relationships is vital to success – something that cannot be done without possessing empathy. As Loren Margolis (CEO of Training & Leadership Success) asserts, gone are the days of command and control in leadership – empathy and collaboration are in [1].

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Why Should I Follow You?

All exceptional leaders must be a motivating and influential answer to this question. You can only motivate and influence people when you know and understand how they feel. That begins with earning the trust of your followers. And, as you probably guessed, an effective way to achieve and gain this trust is through empathy. If your employees don’t trust you, you are not a leader – you are a manager. When you show that you are aware of your employees’ feelings and truly understand where they are coming from, it fosters trust. It provides them with confidence that you will take their feelings into consideration in any given circumstance, and they will feel more comfortable coming to you when mistakes occur. Leaders are only ever as effective as their ability to inspire and engage followers. Leaders become more effective and approachable when their behaviors and actions indicate that they are on the same playing field as their followers – when they share their values, concerns, and experiences. This notion holds true based on the research of Kim Peters and Alex Haslam, where they tracked Marines recruits’ self-identification as leaders and followers [2]. Recruits who considered themselves to be natural leaders were unable to convince their peers of this – it was the recruits who saw themselves as followers who emerged as leaders. The point is this: good leaders are good followers. You have to earn the trust of your followers, and one of the most effective ways to do so is by showing empathy.

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What Does It Look like to Be an Empathetic Leader?

Don’t confuse empathy with being a pushover – there’s nothing soft about it. The ability to understand and relate to the challenges your team and individual contributors encounter is more critical than ever before as the workplace becomes ever more diverse. With that being said, some people are naturally more empathetic than others. SCALE yourself up to be an empathetic leader by developing these skills:

Self-Awareness – Possessing knowledge about yourself and a commitment to your own development. Empathy is gained through failure and challenge. The most impactful and effective leaders are those who have undergone challenges themselves – these are the leaders who know how to lead their teams and individual contributors through their own challenges.

Communication – Empathy makes communication a collaborative process. To develop a working environment that breeds success and performance, we must be able to meet people on their level. Leaders must be able to understand, respect, and implement (if appropriate) another person’s point of view.

Approachable – Empathetic leaders put their team members at ease through leading by example and building a culture of trust. They understand that people will share their concerns and insights only when they feel comfortable. This means welcoming the ideas and perspectives of your team members and encouraging participation and collaboration.

Listen – Become a better listener. More than just paying attention to spoken words and freeing yourself from distraction, it’s about understanding the emotions behind words and the nonverbal cues that are a part of most interactions. Every conversation is an opportunity to foster relationships, build rapport, and encourage the promotion of new ideas that can help innovate your company. Being a better listener shows your team that you value their insights and them as unique individuals.

Encouragement – Pushing your team members to new heights. Empathetic leaders are focused on their own growth and improvement, and this carries over to their team members as well.

What Does the Research Tell Us?

It’s always a good thing when research supports what we are talking about – and it does! Empathy is one of the most important drivers of overall job performance amongst managers. And not only that, but it’s also one of the best drivers of performance across critical leadership domains, including decision making, coaching, engaging, and planning and organizing [3]. Possessing empathy allows us to understand how our decisions will impact the people who work for us and we are more likely to involve them in such decisions and value their insight. Additionally, leaders who are empathetic are better able to coach and develop their people, as they are in tune with their needs and barriers that impede their performance. Furthermore, managers who show higher levels of empathy toward their team are viewed as better performers by their superiors [4]. Empathic emotion as rated from the manager’s subordinates positively predicts job performance ratings from the manager’s superiors. Team members who feel that their leaders are empathetic are positively related to leaders’ job performance ratings received from their superiors.

How Much Is Too Much?

As with most traits, having too much can be impactful in the wrong direction. This is no different with empathy. If you recall from earlier, the distinction between empathy and sympathy is critical. As empathy continues to become a highly sought after skill in the workplace, our customers have taken note as well, wanting to identify candidates in the selection process who possess empathy. The catch is hiring people who possess empathy without sympathy. Especially in high-stress industries such as nursing and law enforcement, the ability of those workers to be able to empathize and understand other’s situations without embodying the brunt and weight of their feelings is critical for success and avoiding burnout. People have to be able to understand where others are coming from, but still, be able to hold people accountable and move on to the next situation.

Next Steps!

While the focus of this discussion has been on empathy, it is just one of many traits that are essential for success and performance for leaders across all organizations. Corvirtus offers development assessments that, in addition to empathy, measure traits across three dimensions of leadership, providing leaders with their strengths and areas of opportunity for development. Our development assessments help you gain greater awareness of your leadership style and opportunities for growth.





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