What image does the word ‘leader’ conjure in your mind?
Someone with a strong sense of conviction? Someone determined? A visionary? What about someone with empathy?
Empathy and emotional intelligence might not be the immediately obvious leadership qualities that spring to mind, but that needs to change if we want to build organisations that are genuinely future-fit, inclusive and profitable.
The rise in tech has shown us just how important human qualities like empathy are, in a world becoming dominated by remote working, AI and algorithms.
From my perspective, women in leadership bring to their roles an innate sense of empathy and a sense of humility, which sets them apart from their male counterparts. We have a ‘just get it done’ attitude, where it’s not about ego, but about being intentional and demonstrating resilience when things go wrong.
And the research backs this idea up.
A study from EY found 90% of US workers believe empathetic leadership leads to higher job satisfaction and 79% agree it decreases employee turnover – so empathy is the key to keeping our people happy and retaining our top talent.
Demonstrating empathy with your team leads to a deeper connection with them as people, building trust and encouraging open communication.
For example, my role is all about delivering projects, so there are lots of peaks and troughs – and those peaks can mean long hours and increased pressure. However, my team members know they are valued, that they’re contributing to the business, and that I’m empathetic to their needs. As a result, they’re more engaged and committed to delivering big projects. We’ve built a strong connection and earned trust.
Empathy in action could be observing and identifying a team member who’s going above and beyond on a project and then leaning in to assist or provide more resources during busy periods. Then, in recognition of their hard work, we would lock in some leave time for a later date.
For people in leadership roles, modelling empathy has a flow-on effect on the wider team. When people see their leaders as demonstrating empathy, they are more likely to act in an empathetic way themselves.
Teams delivering complex projects or working in settings where there is a lot of change benefit from having empathy throughout the team and in interactions with other parts of the business and external stakeholders. It means in times of uncertainty or complexity, you can encourage people to lean into unforeseen circumstances, knowing they’re part of a strong, fair, respectful team where every person matters. This leads to buy-in and better engagement, even in tough times.
A common challenge for leaders is understanding how to set their people up for the future. Which skills and capabilities will they require, and what will our future workplaces look like?
Empathy in leadership means building strong relationships with people so you can retain talent, and encourage your people to take part in professional development that will evolve their skills to drive business success.
At Craveable Brands, our people are the holders of invaluable knowledge with our business, so we want to retain and develop them, and really build that capacity from within.
Empathy means you can encourage people, while also being aware of their mental health and wellbeing, so you can create a culture of high performance, without overwhelm and burnout.
Creativity and collaboration
Every business wants innovation and creativity from its people, and empathetic leaders create safe spaces where ideas can thrive.
When people know they’re trusted and they can share freely, creativity grows. There’s an underlying foundation of understanding and connection, which means people feel secure in offering up different perspectives or challenging the status quo.
Empathetic workplaces also encourage collaboration – people naturally want to work together and make shared decisions, rather than looking to leaders to make big decisions without any input from the wider team.
The best leaders want to encourage the best from their people, rather than prioritising recognition for themselves.
Empathy and integrity
Empathetic leadership isn’t about being ‘soft’ or ignoring tough decisions and difficult conversations. It’s about nurturing connections, respecting your team members as whole people, and not shying away from taking the lead on critical issues.
Operating with integrity as an empathetic leader is about knowing when to stand your ground, but also respecting your people enough to communicate with them about the ‘why’ behind your decisions. This way they’re actively participating in the journey, rather than just going along for the ride.
As an empathetic leader myself, I know people think of me as someone who is open, friendly and good at listening and building relationships with my team and the wider business. However, when I have to be firm I can be. But I do it in a way that’s about understanding business requirements, rather than ego.
So, can you learn to be an empathetic leader? While some people, particularly women, are more naturally empathetic than others, these leadership skills can be learned and encouraged.
Start with listening.
Encourage your people to communicate with you. Make time for conversations where they can ask questions and share feedback, knowing you’re really listening. Communication needs to work both ways – so as well as giving feedback to your team, ask your people for feedback on your leadership and where you could improve.
Each of us is continuously learning and evolving, and a human-centred approach to leadership means accepting that everyone has areas for improvement, and we’re all only human.
If we start with empathy and see each person for the multi-dimensional human they are, we’re on our way to future-fit workplaces where people matter.