A few weeks ago, I met up with an old classmate. I asked him how his new job was going. He had left a big multinational organisation to join a progressive government entity and he was hoping to make a big difference to the nation.
He sighed and shrugged his head. He then went on to lament how everything, including all decisions made, singularly revolved around the “great” leader and everyone else had to just jump according to instructions from the top. He wishes he had stayed at his old organisation and not been swayed by the “grass is greener on the other side” syndrome.
Fortunately, in many corporate entities, the evolution of leadership has, thankfully, shifted from ‘The Great Man’ style of leading, where one person is in charge and understood to call all the shots, to a more collaborative relationship between leaders and their team that comes with the message, “Let’s figure this out together.”
Collaboration is a wonderful approach in today’s competitive market. From a business perspective, the array of ideas and solutions offered up by more than one or two people often yield the kinds of positive results that would take much longer to think up by just one person ruminating at their desk.
However, when we seek to collaborate with others, there’s one key resource from the emotional intelligence toolbox that often gets overlooked: empathy. It seems so obvious – how can we work well alongside others if we neglect to connect with them and make an effort to see things from their perspective, presuming instead that everyone is automatically on the same wavelength?
You might want to hear this out: Writing on empathy for the Harvard Business Review, Earnest J. Wilson III of the University of California drives home the importance of this key skill in leaders and notes:
“According to an unpublished survey of our graduates over the past 10 years who now occupy professional positions, empathy is most lacking among middle managers and senior executives: the very people who need it most because their actions affect such large numbers of people.”
What is empathy?
According to Paul Ekman – a world expert on emotions – there are three kinds of empathy, which are:
1. Cognitive empathy Just knowing how someone might be feeling and what thoughts might be running through their mind. At the core, this is perspective-taking, where we may not necessarily have sympathy but we are aware of the emotions of others.
2. Emotional empathy When we can actually tap into and feel what the other person is feeling: this is a skill that doctors and nurses, for example, would have cultivated during time spent with patients under their care.
3. Compassionate empathy The most holistic form of empathy. Not only are we aware of how someone may be feeling and attuned to their emotions, but we are also driven to help the person if needed.
I have personally experienced all three forms of empathy in different situations, yet there is no one form of empathy that trumps the others.
There are certain situations where cognitive empathy – where we understand how someone else may feel yet remain detached – is critical to make tough decisions occasionally.
Compassionate empathy and emotional empathy can sometimes cause emotional burnout and occasionally, others may take advantage and manipulate a compassionate and empathetic person.
Nonetheless, a person who is high in compassionate empathy would be a wonderful friend to have. Which bring us to the question, is empathy important in business leadership?
Why is empathy important in leadership?
Before answering the question, it’s important to make a distinction between authentic empathy and how we might tend to view it generally. Authentic empathy, in my opinion, is when leaders make the effort to listen, understand and care, while being mindful of context and perspective.
Empathy isn’t about “being nice” – it’s about recognising the appropriate approach to take when confronted by the struggles of someone in need.
For example, the employee who is struggling in their new role, despite giving every effort to fit in and perform at their best, is likely to need the kind of support and guidance from their leader that is driven by compassionate empathy.
On the other hand, an employee who fails to pull their weight for no apparent reason and turns up late to the office every day will require a different approach altogether if the leader hopes to deal effectively with their situation.
In his book, Leaders Eat Last, Simon Sinek suggests that exceptional organisations “prioritise the well-being of their people and, in return, their people give everything they’ve got to protect and advance the well-being of one another and the organisation.” When it comes to leaders – whether of a small home business or an MNC (multinational corporation) – he adds that we all have the responsibility to become the leaders we wished we had as we went through our journey towards where we are today.
Whatever our leadership level, our relationships are built around people and we all want to work alongside those who make the effort to understand our needs, hopes, and desires. As is always the case, it’s the role of those in leadership positions who need to set the standard by leading by example.
Being empathetic towards others not only bolsters relationships and increases levels of confidence and trust, it also acts as the glue that holds a whole organisation together. Without empathy, everything has the potential to fall apart.
Leaders must not only open their ears and eyes to the activity around them; they must also learn to listen to the hearts of others.
Likewise, unless employees truly empathise with their leaders (i.e. understand both the emotional and logical rationale for decisions made), organisations may never reach their full potential.
I recently witnessed a dialogue between a leadership team of an organisation where the leaders talked at each other, but hardly made an effort to listen and discover collaborative opportunities.
To me, the starting point of an empathic organisation is when both leaders and employees stop talking and start listening to understand.
Genuine empathy can transform a business. In 1999, I was tasked to transform an aviation business and came in as an executive director and chief financial officer of the business.
We were a small company with limited customers and we finally landed a huge customer from China. But as soon as we got the order, we messed up the work and the customer was fuming mad. We had hoped that doing a good job would have yielded us more work from them but instead, it looked like it was the end of the relationship.
Our chief executive officer Peter Jerin felt significant pain, not for us, but for the customer. He knew that the head of engineering at the airline trusted us with their engines but got shoddy work for her trust.
We flew down to apologise. But she refused to see us. We stayed outside her office almost the whole day till she finally came out. And we bowed down to her and apologised profusely, truly empathising with her pain.
She left without acknowledging us nor uttering a word. Yet, a few weeks later, she sent a few more engines for us to service with a caution advising us that if we ever messed up again, our apologies would mean nothing. We never messed up again.
Having the ability to not only empathise with each other internally but also externally with our customers can truly be transformative for our business. If each leader and employee in our organisation has an empathic heart, many of the problems we face may be a thing of the past.
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Roshan is the Founder and “Kuli” of the Leaderonomics Group of companies. He believes that everyone can be a leader and "make a dent in the universe," in their own special ways. He is featured on TV, radio and numerous publications sharing the Science of Building Leaders and on leadership development. Follow him at www.roshanthiran.com
Conine also talks about how learning through finance simulations provides the opportunity and space to exchange ideas on tackling the challenges of operating a business in times of low economic growth.