Hello, and welcome to the Leadership Done Right Podcast, Episode 74: 5 Steps To Develop Leadership Empathy!
Hi friends! Over the last little while, I have had several requests to talk about empathy in leadership and how one can develop it. So, in this episode I want to talk about leadership empathy. We’re going to define what leadership empathy is, the difference between empathy and sympathy, and five steps you can take today to develop leadership empathy.
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What is leadership empathy?
Let’s start with a few dictionary definitions of empathy:
- The Google dictionary explains that it is “The ability to understand and share the feelings of another.”
- Merriam-Webster says it is, “the action of understanding, being aware of, being sensitive to, and vicariously experiencing the feelings, thoughts, and experience of another of either the past or present without having the feelings, thoughts, and experience fully communicated in an objectively explicit manner.”
- And finally, Wikipedia defines empathy as, “the capacity to understand or feel what another person is experiencing from within the other person’s frame of reference, meaning the capacity to place oneself in another’s position.”
There’s a lot to each of those definitions, but what I takeaway is that when you have empathy, you feel what others are feeling as if it is happening to you. You understand and relate to as if you were in their shoes.
So how does that relate to leadership?
Empathy is really important because it helps you know and feel for those you lead. Those you lead have many things going on in their lives. They go through challenges, trials, and other difficulties. By having leadership empathy, you feel for those you lead. You also pay close attention to their thoughts and feelings. As you are in-tune with others, you change your behavior to help those you lead in a way that is best for them.
Empathy vs. Sympathy
Often people confuse empathy and sympathy. The website Diffen explains the difference between the two as follows, “Empathy is the ability to experience the feelings of another person. It goes beyond sympathy, which is caring and understanding for the suffering of others. Both words are used similarly and often interchangeably (incorrectly so) but differ subtly in their emotional meaning.”
It goes on to define empathy as, “Understanding what others are feeling because you have experienced it yourself or can put yourself in their shoes.” Sympathy is, “Acknowledging another person’s emotional hardships and providing comfort and assurance.”
The differences are subtle but distinguished. Empathy is feeling what another person is feeling and being there in the moment with them. Sympathy, on the other hand, is comforting or telling others what feelings can happen when they go through a situation.
I like to think of it as, when I have empathy I have felt or am feeling very similar to others. I can relate to them and their situation. When I have sympathy, I have not felt or been through what others are going through, but I can do my best to comfort them.
Five Steps to Develop Leadership Empathy
So how can one develop leadership empathy? On Success.com Simon Sinek explained that, “Empathy is the ability to recognize and share other people’s feelings. It is the most important instrument in a leader’s toolbox, Sinek believes. It can be expressed in the simple words, “Is everything OK?”
“It’s what effective leaders ask an employee, instead of commanding “Clean out your desk” when he or she starts slacking off. It’s what you ask a client when a once-harmonious relationship gets rocky. “I really believe in quiet confrontation,” Sinek says. “If you had a good working relationship with someone and it’s suddenly gone sour, I believe in saying something like, ‘When we started we were both so excited, and it’s become really difficult now. Are you OK? What’s changed?’”
As you can see from Simon Sinek’s comments, leadership empathy makes all the difference. I’ve learned a lot about empathy from studying a variety of articles and books on empathy, having discussions with others, and from personal experience. From that, I compiled my top five steps to develop leadership empathy.
1. Seek to Understand
It is human nature to immediately blame others for the problems whenever something goes wrong, changes, or the outcome is not as expected instead of asking questions to gain an understanding.
As Simon Sinek says, we need to ask questions to gain understanding. Ask questions like, “How are you feeling?”, “Is everything okay?”, or “Is there something on your mind?” By asking these questions, we gain a better understanding of what is going on and why behavior has changed.
I’ve heard many stories where someone’s behavior dramatically changed. Everyone around them noticed and even started talking about it, but no one had the courage to ask why.
Once someone finally got the courage to ask why, they would find out the person recently had a life changing event. Their family member died, they were having money struggles, their spouse was divorcing them, or they were going through some other life crisis. But, it wasn’t until someone took the time to ask that they actually found out why. Once people learned the “why”, they were able to empathize which made all the difference.
2. Pay Close Attention
When you lead people, pay close attention to the behavior of those you lead. As you observe their behavior, you learn how they behave in certain situations. You will also recognize when they are acting differently. That helps you to help them more effectively.
When you notice that their behavior changes, ask how they are doing. Find out how their life is going. And, show genuine care for their wellbeing. That will open the lines of communication between you and those you lead.
3. Adjust Your Leadership to those You Lead
Each person is different. Their needs are different, how they want to be talked to is different, and overall we are all just different people. Once we know we know those we lead, we can adjust our behavior to lead in a way that is most effective for them. We can go outside our comfort zone to help them in the way they will best receive it.
I love the book, 5 Languages of Appreciation, because it explains how people give and receive appreciation. It also explains that we often give appreciation in a way that we like to receive it, but that is different from how others like to receive it. It results in others not feeling your appreciation. This same approach goes for empathy. Change your leadership approach to help those you lead by identifying the way they best receive appreciation and then give it to them that way.
When we have leadership empathy, we do our very best to lead in the way that will best be received by others.
4. Genuinely Love and Care for Those You Lead
When I became a service missionary at the age of 19, my dad told me that the key to winning the hearts of those I taught was to, “Love the people.” He didn’t just tell me that once, he told me time and again to love the people.
The love and care you should have for those you lead is a brotherly or paternal love. Please don’t confuse that with a romantic love. 🙂 Change your heart so you sincerely love those you lead.
How do you do that? Forget about yourself and focus on them. Don’t become self-absorbed thinking only about what you need and want. Instead, think about the needs of your team. What is best for them? What will help them be more effective? What can you do to make their lives easier? How can you remove stumbling blocks from their paths? Focus on helping them to be their best selves.
As a young service missionary, I learned that the more I loved and cared for those I taught, the better leader I became.
5. Listen Intently to Those You Lead
Often we have so much going through our minds that it’s easy to only half or quarter listen to others when they talk. Instead, focus on active listening. Clear other thoughts from your mind and actively listen to others. Engage in the conversations with others by focusing on listening to them to hear and understand what they are saying.
I’ve heard people say they are not good at remembering names… The truth is that they are often too busy thinking about other things to commit the name to memory. When you hear someone’s name, say it in your head so you can remember it. Then pay close attention to what they are saying.
The same goes for the whole listening experience. Focus all your energies on listening to the conversation so you can gain the most from them.
Now let’s wrap things up. If you think you can become the ideal empathetic leader overnight, you are likely going to be disappointed. You can, however, become more empathetic each day by following the points we discussed. So let’s recap.
- Seek to understand others.
- Pay close attention to the behavior of those you lead.
- Adjust your leadership approach for those you lead.
- Genuinely love and care for those you lead.
- Listen intently to those you lead.
From a practical standpoint, take time to practice empathy everyday. If you are not involved in daily situations that allow you to practice empathy, seek opportunities to show empathy to others you are in contact with.
Be more empathetic towards the store clerk, mail delivery person, or a family member. That will help you gain empathy little by little until you don’t have to think, you will just be the empathetic leader everyone loves and talks about.
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Thanks again for listening! My goal is to help you become a great leader, now go be the best leader you can be!
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