Empathy is simply defined as the ability to identify with others and be aware of their thoughts and feelings. Empathetic leadership is rooted in bringing that perspective into your decisions and actions as a leader.
A 2019 study conducted at Texas A&M found powerful connections between empathetic leadership and employee productivity and innovation. The researchers defined Empathetic Leadership in this way: “Empathetic leadership focuses on the emotional relationship between a leader and follower—how much a leader understands a follower’s work situation, invests in emotional understanding, and provides emotional security for the follower.”
Empathetic leadership requires not just investing time and attention in understanding the situations of others but incorporating that perspective into your leadership actions. Your emotional awareness is a critical input to your decision-making process. It is only when leaders act on their empathy that employees perceive its authenticity. It is only when you take action that employees will feel emotionally secure.
All leaders need to dial up their listening, understanding and connection, particularly in times of crisis. Empathetic leaders do that and more. Organizations are fragile networks of human beings and a crisis like COVID-19 and the shift to virtual work pulls and frays at that fabric. Empathetic leaders pay attention to the emotional state of the organization and make conscious decisions to address it.
It is one thing to issue a heartfelt statement of support for diversity in the workplace and acknowledgement of systemic discrimination. It is another to change hiring practices, talent assessment practices, benefit systems and operating norms to support those values.
It is one thing to write about the challenges of work-life balance in a monthly blog to employees; it is another to reach out to members of the team who are juggling children, work and the pandemic to discuss how they are and what would help. It inspires the team if those conversations lead to actions to support employees who are losing ground as the pandemic lingers.
How do you build your skills as an empathetic leader? It starts with listening. It grows with awareness. It becomes habit through practice. That’s where simulation-based leadership development comes in. A simulation-based learning experience can help a leader recognize the need for empathy and practice incorporating an empathetic perspective in his or her interactions and decisions. A simulation can also tangibly demonstrate the business value of empathetic leadership in the results a leader can create.
Empathic leadership takes time and attention, but can pay back with an ROI beyond measure. It’s a skill worth honing.
Amanda Young Hickman is co-founder of Insight Experience, a Boston-based firm delivering contextually rich business simulations and learning experiences to accelerate and integrate leadership, business acumen and strategy execution.