Why Empathy Might Be Your Most Powerful Tool as a Leader

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Amidst a lot of uncertainty surrounding resuming a normal work schedule, hybrid and even remote work cultures that have sprung from the COVID-19 pandemic: our lives as employees are all jumbled up. Many of us are in a cycle of worry about our parents, our neighbors, our kids, our economy, our groceries – the list goes on. That juggling takes up head space. That worry takes up head space. And the wide range of emotions that come along with that cannot be ignored, especially by leaders.

Without the ability to connect face-to-face with employees, a leader might feel like throwing his or her hands in the air helplessly saying, “What can I do!?” The answer is: a lot, actually. In addition to virtual connection points, one of the most powerful tools a leader can wield right now is genuine connection and empathy with his or her employees.

ADVISA has consulted and coached with the EQ-i 2.0 Emotional Intelligence (EI) assessment for well over a decade, helping individuals identify the underlying competencies that fuel their leadership potential, prioritize EI strengths and opportunities for growth, and learn new skills through practice and reinforcement.

Empathy is one of the 15 competencies measured by the EQ-i 2.0 assessment and is defined as, “the ability to be aware of, understand, and appreciate the feelings and thoughts of others.” Brené Brown calls it, “getting down in the well” with someone. Empathy is tuning in (or being sensitive) to what, how, and why people feel and think the way they do. Being empathetic means you’re able to “emotionally read” other people.

A leader’s ability to read and show they care about employees as people is critical to increasing engagement in the workplace. Leaders who can build meaningful, trusting relationships with their employees are both competent in the technical skills/knowledge necessary for their industry and role, and they’re good at connecting with their people on a real, human level. We call this the Connection-Competence Model, and it’s often eye-opening for leaders who (and this is typical) spend most of their time focusing on technical acumen when connecting with employees and is more closely connected to engagement and in turn, productivity. Empathy is key to a leader’s ability to connect with his or her employees in a meaningful way.

How to get started

The great news about empathy (and the other 14 competencies measured by the EQ-i 2.0 assessment) is that people can learn new strategies to understand when and how to flex that particular EI muscle. Here are a few ways to work on your empathy:

  • Call an employee JUST to check in – no agenda, no ask – simply to see how he/she is doing. The opportunity for him/her to vent can be such a source of relief, now more than ever. Though grabbing coffee or a beer in person is ideal, even an informal call allows you to learn more and connect. Because everyone is at home, you’ll likely learn a lot more about their lives, challenges at home, family members, etc. Seize the opportunity to develop a more holistic understanding of your employee, and to be vulnerable and share about your personal life, too.
    • Bonus points: After the call, send him/her a follow up note (yes, via snail mail with a stamp and everything) connecting the dots from your call and restating that you heard what he/she said. Making your employees feel “seen” is a great way to exercise empathy.
  • Work on active listening. Often when people talk to each other they don’t listen attentively and are distracted. Give someone the opportunity to completely express him/herself while you listen without interrupting, judging, or trying to solve his/her problem. Then try to repeat back in your own words what you think the speaker has said, showing you understand what he/she is saying.
  • Remove the phrase, “I can’t imagine…” from your vocabulary. This is not an empathetic statement. It implies that whatever the person has told you is so awful that you “can’t imagine” going through it yourself. The point of empathy is to imagine, so try not to let this common phrase slip out. “That has to be so hard,” is a good replacement.
  • When talking with someone, pay close attention to the words they use, tone of voice, and (if on video) their facial expression and body posture. Seek to understand both fact and feeling, mentally categorizing their statements as either facts (this is happening) or feelings (this is how I feel about it) and connect with both. Don’t leave the feelings alone and focus on the facts. Feelings matter now more than ever.
  • Use behavioral tools like The Predictive Index® Behavioral Assessment to learn about your employee and appreciate his/her perspective and approach to the work. Your willingness to spend time learning about an employee’s drives and motivators demonstrates that you care.
  • Find or think of someone who you feel is strong in empathy, and work to observe their communication style – almost scientifically. What are some questions he/she asks? How does he/she listen? What can you adopt to increase your expression of empathy?
  • Ask someone how he/she feels on a scale of 0 – 10 (0 being “I can’t stand another day of this,” and 10 being “I am caffeinated and killing it out here!”) and if there’s anything you can do to help. Don’t hesitate to share your emotions as well. A leader who can open up and be vulnerable about his/her situation shows that he/she is capable of understanding others empathetically.
  • Seek feedback from trusted colleagues. Tell them you’re working on improving your empathy skills and you’d welcome any feedback about how you’re doing over the next few weeks/months.

The more we can recognize work now looks very different for each of our employees, the better we will become at showing empathy. A leader’s ability to empathize with these circumstances could build trust that will far outlive the ongoing consequences of the pandemic.

Leadership Consultant and author Kye Hawkins is a certified EQ Coach.