Empathy, A Key Trait of Leadership

Effective leadership goes well beyond assigning duties and reviewing performance. It requires a relationship between the leader and those who follow him or her that will draw people to accept or even see the influence of the leader. Developing this sort of relationship is dependent upon the leader’s demonstration of strong character traits that will lead to trust and respect from his/her team members. One such essential trait of an effective leader is the demonstration of empathy when dealing with people.

The Merriam-Webster dictionary defines empathy as “the action of understanding, being aware of, being sensitive to, and vicariously experiencing the feelings, thoughts, and experience of another.” In other words, empathy is recognizing and acknowledging that the team members are human, that they have feelings, and that those feelings impact their words and actions as well as how they perceive others. In basic terms, empathy takes into account the emotions that are present in others as the leader communicates and interacts. It demonstrates that we are human and that we recognize the humanity of those around us.

Emotional intelligence can be described in four hierarchies, as follows: 1) understanding our own emotions, 2) managing our own emotions, 3) understanding the emotions of others, and 4) dealing effectively with the emotions of others. Empathy is an element of emotional intelligence and falls into the fourth hierarchy of dealing effectively with the emotions of others. In order to possess and properly display empathy, a person must first have some competency in the previous three levels of emotional intelligence. Before being able to deal effectively with others’ emotions one must be able to recognize the emotions of others. Before being able to recognize the emotions of others, one must be aware of and able to manage one’s own emotions. Of course, before a person can practice the higher levels of emotional intelligence, there must be the character trait of valuing the individual.

We can imagine some examples of low or lack of empathy in the work situation. These show up as ignoring or riding roughshod over the emotions of the people with whom we interact. Telling an associate who has just experienced a major failure to “suck it up and get moving” is a lack of empathy, as is telling an associate who has just been congratulated by the CEO for an excellent report that their work doesn’t justify the praise. Even a boss adding another assignment to an associate who is already showing signs of high stress is a display of low empathy. This is not to say that adding another assignment is not acceptable, but rather that an empathetic leader would recognize and acknowledge the evident stress and discuss with the associate alternatives for getting the work done in ways that will alleviate the stress.

How do effective leaders demonstrate or utilize empathy in their day-to-day interactions with the people around them? Showing empathy requires moving beyond tasks and facts and recognizing and valuing the humanity of people. It requires a desire to connect. Here are some of the essential ways that empathy shows up:

  • Listening attentively and actively and engaging to learn more
  • Connecting to hearts as well as heads.
  • Tuning in to non-verbal communication and being an observer of people
  • Being fully present by blocking out or eliminating distractions
  • Giving genuine recognition and affirmation
  • Taking a personal interest in people; knowing their names and something about them
  • Being open and valuing the thoughts and opinions of people and demonstrating that value
  • Checking in on the emotions of others; asking the questions of what they are feeling and what they need

A leader with strong empathy has a subconscious habit of reading the emotions of the people with whom they come in contact. This sometimes subtle recognition prompts communication that values the emotions and guides the way in which any message is presented. It may sound like more effort is required, but once it is built into a person’s character, it becomes second nature.

If you want to be an effective leader but find empathy and the idea of emotions to be like a foreign language, how can you build the trait of empathy into your life? The intentional change model in simple form describes understanding the gap between a current state (low on empathy) and a desired state (being more empathetic) and identifying ways to practice the desired trait to build it into your life.

One excellent way to build empathy is to put yourself in a situation where you must identify and deal with emotions in others – volunteering for a social program, for example, such as a suicide hot-line ministry. A less stressful method might be to remind yourself before every interaction to attempt to read the emotions of those around you and think about the implications on your actions until it becomes second nature. With practice and a strong desire one can grow to recognize emotions in others. With even more practice that recognition can regulate the way that individual communicates and interacts with others.

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Ken Vaughan

Business Consultant & Leadership Coach at New Horizon Partners Inc.
(614) 776-5720

Ken is a business strategy consultant and leadership coach. His passion is helping companies and people grow and succeed. With an engineering degree and an MBA, he spent more than 20 years working in M&A and business development in the corporate world before founding New Horizon Partners, Inc. in 2002. His consulting practice works with a wide variety of industrial companies, helping them make good decisions about where and how to compete and building their leadership capabilities. To read other articles by Ken on business strategy and leadership, visit the New Horizon Partners website.
Ken Vaughan
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