How to lead with empathy

Research shows that empathic leaders contribute to a more engaged workforce and higher productivity. But being empathic comes with a risk, for while you’re busy protecting other people’s rights you might be breaching your own boundaries, as Jess Baker and Rod Vincent explain

Leading with empathy has not always been fashionable. It’s easy to think of senior executives or business tycoons who believed that task-driven businesses are more successful. There is a misconception that empathic leadership encourages emotional expression to the detriment of business growth. But research shows that empathic leaders contribute to a more engaged workforce, with increased productivity.

It is generally agreed that there are two types: cognitive and emotional empathy. Neuroscientific evidence shows that while they inhabit two separate parts of the brain, they are intricately woven and often active at the same time. To be an empathic leader you need to activate both types of empathy.

Cognitive empathy

When you say, “I know how you feel”, that’s cognitive empathy in action. We use it all the time, whenever we are trying to decipher what is going on in other people’s heads. It is essential in the workplace: imagine you’ve just given feedback to a colleague; you almost certainly look at them afterwards, trying to read their reaction.

None of us could function without knowing, at least to some extent, what other people are thinking. But it is not always reliable – we invent stories to fill in the gaps in what we think others are thinking. And we cannot know how accurate we are. To be a truly empathic leader it’s important to develop your cognitive empathy, but equally important to remain aware of its limitations.

My friend Adam recently came round for coffee. Three fingers of his right hand were in plastic splints, bound together with a frayed and slightly grubby bandage. A few weeks before, he had driven to watch his teenage son play football. Back in the car his son was chatting with his teammates. Adam picked up the muddy football boots that had been forgotten on the gravel. As he handed them back, he balanced himself with his right hand on the hinged side of the door. His son took the boots and slammed the door. Adam yelled.

He opened the door with his left hand and prised his fingers out. They were bent like snapped twigs. They swelled and went purple. He’d severely ruptured the ligaments. Adam said the worst part was that each time he went for an X-ray or to see a doctor, they wouldn’t let him describe the injury. They yanked off the splints, tearing the tissue apart again.

Emotional empathy is the sense of experiencing someone else’s feelings. When Adam told me about his injury, I curled my fingers as if I was experiencing the pain myself. Maybe you experienced an empathic reaction too.

Neuroscientists have shown it can be literally true when we say, “I feel your pain”. The same neural circuits involved in the experience of physical pain are activated by just observing someone else in pain.

Becoming an empathic leader

To be an empathic leader you need both types of empathy. To think about other people and what they might be thinking, and to connect with other people’s feelings. Without them you would be a cold and dispassionate leader.

Below, we’ve set out some of the characteristics of empathic leadership as reflective statements. Score yourself out of ten on each of them to identify the extent to which you see yourself as an empathic leader.

I take a natural interest in others

I overlook my own pre-judgements about people

I can readily tune into how others are feeling

I ensure everyone feels included

I have healthy relationships with my colleagues

I facilitate collaboration and teamworking

I consider the impact on people when I make decisions

Why your organisation should be people-focused

Imagine a task-driven organisation led by an autocratic leader who sets high targets for business growth. The employees work long hours striving to achieve those targets and live in fear of being blamed when they don’t. Compare this to a people-driven business that also desires business growth, but it does this by empowering its employees and allowing them to make mistakes. Which do you think would be more successful? Which would attract the most talented people?

In recent research, social scientists in collaboration with Harvard Business School collected data from 15,000 leaders from over 5,000 organisations. They looked at the impact of leadership qualities on organisational measures of success. They found that organisations with highly compassionate leaders performed better on measures such as employee engagement, employee retention and customer service. They also discovered that leaders who valued authentic connection and transparency at work also reported lower stress levels, lower risk of burnout, higher commitment to the organisation and enhanced personal wellbeing.

Can you have too much empathy?

People high in empathy can be almost too nice. They do things like put off having a difficult conversation with a challenging team member. They find it hard to make decisions that would upset people. They tend to place other people’s needs before their own, and ultimately, worry so much that they end up suffering with anxiety or stress themselves.

If you scored highly on the statements above, it’s worth considering whether your empathy is in overdrive. The ability to take tough decisions and to act assertively are important in business too. As with everything, it’s a question of getting the balance right. What one of our clients in a large hotel chain calls the ‘tough-tender’ balance.

One way for highly empathic people to work towards that balance, where you still bring empathy to work, but can also take difficult business decisions, is to know and protect your own boundaries.

The limit of your responsibility

Reduce the amount of responsibility you take for others – you are not responsible for their emotions or behaviour; they are. Your responsibility is to treat them fairly and respectfully, but not to do their job for them or protect them from the hard truth. 

Know the limit of your capacity to help others: be aware of what you are taking on, be realistic with how much time it will take, and be aware of the emotional toll of over-stretching yourself.

Know the importance of looking after yourself too: if the focus of your attention is entirely on other people, most of the consequences for you are going to be negative – you are the one who ends up suffering. It might help you to remember one thing when you are next being asked for help: your ultimate responsibility is not to your boss, your employer, or your team, it is to yourself. You have to look after your own needs, protect your own boundaries and assert your human rights because if you aren’t doing these things, who is going to?

Jess Baker and Rod Vincent are Chartered Psychologists and the authors of The Super-Helper Syndrome: A Survival Guide for Compassionate People (Flint Books, available in hardback £18.99 and ebookwww.jessbaker.co.uk/shsbookclub

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