During some of the most difficult moments of the past 12 months, there’s been one leadership trait that’s outshone others over and over again.
We saw it in some of the leaders who best responded to COVID-19 in their countries, including Prime Minister Jacinda Ardern in New Zealand and Taiwan President Tsai Ing-wen.
These were the leaders who not only made difficult decisions exactly as they were needed, but could also foresee some of the human elements such decision-making would involve. They were direct with their communication, but maintained compassion in understanding the impacts on different groups.
Indeed, in research my business recently ran with Monarch Institute, surveying more than 700 women on the leadership traits they have most admired during COVID, empathy was up in the top three, alongside communication and decisiveness.
It’s not just world leaders who need empathy, but also business leaders, as well as anyone looking to interact and work with others effectively — and ultimately succeed — now and well into the future of work.
Empathy underpins relationships and good management at work, which then drives other outcomes, like productivity, retention, mental health and wellbeing.
And we can expect empathy to be even more important heading into the future of work, not only as the economic fallout from the pandemic continues to disrupt business, but also as the evolution of tech sees more AI and automation upending jobs and careers. Especially with so much upskilling and transition required.
Through all this change, it’s empathy that will also drive innovation, as has been repeatedly noted by Microsoft CEO Satya Nadella, who says “nothing is more fruitful than walking in the shoes of others.”
And it’s empathy that will support diversity and inclusion in teams, ultimately fostering supportive workplace cultures. It’s the key skill for crystalising what’s needed from customers and staff, and developing good ideas that are actually relevant to people’s experiences and needs.
How do you show empathy?
For many leaders, empathy comes naturally. They show it in their everyday actions and words. It’s with them when they wake up, a sense of seeking to understand the feelings — including the pain — of others.
But then this natural empathy needs to be tempered with an ability to not be consumed by such pain, but rather to act on it — to seek ways to learn from and support others on what they are going through.
Acknowledge, listen, encourage
If empathy does not come so naturally, you can aim to intentionally bring it into your interactions with others, especially when others come to you with an issue or problem they are facing.
Aim to acknowledge what the person who has come to you is saying and avoid being dismissive, regardless of how small or inconvenient their situation sounds. Listen, like there is nothing else in the world that matters in that moment.
Then make it clear that you have heard them, that you care, repeat back some of the things they have said so they know you are hearing it. Show interest in their situation, as well as support for their side of what they are experiencing.
Remember, you don’t need to agree in order to show empathy. But you do need to set aside your own perspective for a period to learn from what someone else is feeling.
Transparency, communication and trust
Another opportunity to show empathy is when you’re communicating with others, particularly as your passing on difficult news.
These are the true moments that set leaders apart, yet it’s incredible how many fail at this point, particularly if their leadership has predominantly been centred around success and constantly moving forward, rather than responding to adversities that occur.
So the first step here is to prepare to be genuinely empathetic, especially by building up your personal trust and accountability during the good times.
You can do this through transparency and communication, by making an effort to deliver regular communications through both the ups and downs of your business cycle.
By being honest about what’s occurring and where you foresee issues emerging. And by noting how these issues may impact people differently, and what you’re planning to do about it.
Build up your trust reserves through constant communication — that way when your most important empathetic conversation is needed, those hearing it will already have trust in who you are and believe what you are saying.
The trust will also come from showing some vulnerability — which can seem difficult or counterintuitive as you’re trying to show strength.
But showing this vulnerability can come by talking through some of your emotions, and also making an effort to bring elements of your non-work self into work, such as by opening up about your family and your outside interest.
Before taking any challenging news to others, demonstrate that you’ve actively explored all options, that you have spent time on the problem and gone through as many scenarios as possible. You need to make it clear that you care enough to spend time considering all possible solutions.
Leaders, show more compassionate empathy
Recently, Div Pillay, CEO of MindTribes, outlined three forms of empathy to me during a panel discussion touching on the topic.
“There’s cognitive empathy, where you understand what someone else is going through,” she said.
“There’s emotional empathy, where you feel what someone else is going through.
“Then there is compassionate empathy, which is where you say, I feel what you’re going through, and I will act for you so I can get you some support.”
It’s the latter that she wants to see more leaders pursuing with their teams, particularly as it’s central to creating the truly diverse and inclusive environments that workplaces need.
Empathy is a difficult skill. It’s one that needs constant practice, and introspection on where you fail on its application, which will inevitably occur from time to time. It requires personal awareness and a true willingness to listen — which too many of us put under the banner of ‘too busy’ to do.
But all that practice will pay off through your career, not only in the better relationships you develop and the heightened abilities to manage and lead that will occur, but also in how you can use your listening, learning and trust to innovate.