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Years ago, I worked for a high-performing regional marketing team for a global company. We kept sales pipeline full to three times quota. We supported reps with both strategic and tactical efforts. We harmoniously worked together with colleagues in the office, as well as those working from remote locations.
Then one day, our fearless VP left for another opportunity. But we kept the ship sailing and pipelines full and operated without a division leader for almost six months.
A new VP finally arrived, and we were impressed with this person’s expertise and excited about what we could learn. But excitement quickly turned to dread in what became a toxic work environment. This person ruled by fear and focused on playing politics by meeting with other departmental leaders first rather than sit down with the team and ask us what was working, what was not and to acknowledge our contributions thus far. We’d often be talked over in meetings, lambasted for anything that had gone wrong, and even lied to about what others said and did in an effort to make us look bad. We would sit in meetings like scared schoolchildren, about to be scolded for who knows what that day. At least once a week, someone would be in tears.
These were smart, proactive performers who were often courted by recruiters. Eventually, these very talented marketers all left the company and went on to successful roles elsewhere. While the team had gained valuable professional skills from this person’s expertise, it could no longer thrive within the culture created by such leadership.
Leadership is about expertise and ability, to be sure, but it is just as much about emotional intelligence and interpersonal relationships. And empathy, the ability to see other perspectives, understand someone else’s point of view and act with compassion, plays a huge role in making a leader and his or her team successful.
Author and leadership expert Simon Sinek says that empathy is crucial to successful leadership. He defines it as, “the ability to recognize and share other people’s feelings,” and says he believes it’s the most important instrument in a leader’s toolbox. Microsoft CEO Satya Nadella believes empathy is the cornerstone of a successful leadership style and sparks innovation — and his company has benefited both from a culture and market performance standpoint as a result.
But what if you’re not a very "empathetic person" or believe you don’t have the kind of people skills to gain these such leadership benefits? It turns out that with empathy, as with many other skills in life, practice makes perfect.
We are wired for empathy.
Evolutionary biology and neuroscience has taught us that humans are actually hard-wired for empathy from birth. While working on my upcoming book, The Empathy Edge: Harnessing the Value of Compassion as an Engine for Success (Page Two, October 2019), Dutch primatologist Frans de Waal came up over and over again in my research on empathy’s scientific roots. According to social scientist Roman Krznaric’s book, Empathy: Why it Matters and How to Get It, de Waal’s experiments in the 1990’s “turned the old Hobbesian and Darwinian picture of human nature on its head by showing that empathy is a natural capacity in a range of animals, such as gorillas, chimp, elephants, dolphins — and human beings." This idea of empathy being an innate part of our humanness spawned the concept of Homo Empathicus. This is the concept that we as humans actually survive and thrive on collaboration and belonging, not on self-interest or isolation.
This carries over in the business world, as more and more studies reveal that employees do their best work when supported by empathetic cultures and leaders.
According to a World Economic Forum article, 71 percent of millennials want their coworkers to be like a “second family,” and a Deloitte study shows that 75 percent of them believe that their employer should mentor and nurture their innate talents. A Deloitte poll also found that 92 percent of millennials think business should be measured by more than just profit, and that true success will also encompass a societal purpose. This generation craves a different kind of working experience, one in which their input is valued, their community is fostered, and their employers care about creating a better world.
If you don’t provide this type of environment, disengagement can be costly. Studies by the Queens School of Business and the Gallup Organization showed that disengaged workers had 37 percent higher absenteeism and a whopping 60 percent more working errors. (Don’t like your job? Why bother doing your best work?) Not only that, companies with low employee engagement scores had employees who were 18 percent lower in productivity and 16 percent lower in profitability.
So, yes, empathy plays a big role in leaders creating a thriving environment where employees can do their best work, thus increasing retention, productivity, talent attraction and collaboration. And all of those "feel good" traits can lead to better market performance and profitability. Here are three ways for leaders to cultivate more empathy:
1. Practice presence.
If you feel constantly scattered and preoccupied, you’ll have no capacity to consider others’ perspectives or think clearly. You’ll be in defensive and reactive mode constantly, which is the antithesis of empathy. You’ll be too caught up in your own stuff!
Even five minutes to simply ground yourself every day is a good start. If you you can commit to five minutes daily instead of 30 minutes weekly, commit to the five minutes. Once you get consistent, practice begets practice. And when you start to see the results in how you handle conflict, see another’s perspective and act with compassion, the results will speak for themselves.
Here are some mindfulness practices you can try for five or 10 minutes a day to see what works best for your personal style. Schedule the time in your calendar and hold it sacred:
- Sit in silence and notice where your mind goes
- Meditate (whatever that means to you)
- Breathe deeply and slowly, focusing on your exhalations and inhalations
- Walk, stretch or take a quick jog
In terms of cultivating mindfulness in the presence of others, start by avoiding distractions. Put away your phone, don’t glance at email. Do this in all your meetings, and encourage everyone else to do the same. Don’t multitask. Turn off your monitor during one-on-ones. Create an environment that allows singular concentration and respectful focus.
2. Listen more, talk less.
The first step is to practice presence enough to be still and in the moment, but the next step is true engagement. Presence can be somewhat passive, but empathy requires you to actively listen and hear what is going on for someone else. You cannot do this if you are talking all the time. Instead of always charging in with, “This is what I think you should do,” ask for input and reflect on the response you receive.
Empathetic leadership requires restraint to listen to people’s experiences, stories and perspectives, and draw patterns from that information, over and over again.
When leaders talk constantly and bulldoze other speakers, they broadcast callousness. When leaders talk less and listen more, the message they send is that opinions other than their own actually matter. These humble servant-leaders are relatable, approachable and inspirational.
So practice active listening. Let people vent, talk and express themselves before you jump in with your responses. Don’t chomp at the bit waiting for your turn to speak; pay attention to the information you’re being given. Doing so will give you access to a wealth of insight that your colleagues and direct reports are eager to share.
3. Be curious.
One of the key traits of highly empathic people (HEPs) is that they have an insatiable curiosity about strangers. They find other people more interesting than themselves, are eager to learn about lives and worldviews different from their own. Their natural openness helps them understand the world from multiple perspectives.
Go beyond idle chit chat, and ask your team about their personal lives (as appropriate) so you can understand what drives them or what might be informing their state of mind on a given day. One executive director I know begins all Monday staff meetings with having everyone talk about what is going on for them personally before they dive into business. When someone offers a solution with which you may not agree, instead of immediately shooting it down, get playfully curious: Why do they feel this will work? What challenges can they envision? What gains do they predict? Have others tried it this way? Why couldn’t this work?
Are there times you need to be decisive and swift? Absolutely. Nothing drives a team battier than an indecisive leader who constantly requires consensus before taking action. But if you prudently choose empathy as your input gathering mode before making a final decision, the team will notice — even if the decision is not the one certain individuals would have wanted you to make. And all that listening will pay off later because you will better understand how to communicate that decision and deliver the message for the best team result.
March 8, 2019 at 08:11AM