Blog: Empathy: The 'forgotten' leadership skill!


Empathy: The 'forgotten' leadership skill!

Perhaps the most important leadership and forgotten skill in a leader is the quality of empathy
Empathy: The 'forgotten' leadership skill!

“You can never understand someone unless you understand their point of view; Climb in that person’s skin or stand or walk in that person’s shoes.” (Source: To Kill a Mocking Bird)

Henry Ford has said, “If there is any one secret of success, it lies in the ability to get the other person’s point of view and see things from his angle as well as your own.”The ability to get the other person’s viewpoint and perspective and being sensitive to others’ feelings are the essence of empathy, which is a key leadership skill, which is unfortunately, rarely demonstrated by business leaders in today’s organizational context. It’s emotions that make us human. But, is there a place for emotions in the workplace?

The reason for this is that business organizations and management thereof is firmly rooted in the ‘rational actor’ model. Analytical rigour and intellectual arguments are preferred and valued. The primacy of intellect in organizational analysis has for all practical purposes delegitimized emotions. There has been a rise of science of management at the expense of art of management. ‘You are getting/being emotional’ has become the sternest possible criticism one can get!

Organizational leaders often avoid dealing with employees’ personal issues, couching on refrains like ‘I don’t have enough time for all these’, or ‘That’s your problem. You should deal with that’.

Such or similar responses are definite indicators of poor demonstration of empathic skills. A leader’s, however technically or functionally competent she or he may be, failure to demonstrate empathic skills may lead to her or his career derailment. Executives with poor empathic skills generally experience difficulty in dealing with change, may not be as effective as they should be either as team members or leaders. They may demonstrate poor or dysfunctional inter-personal relationship. This kind of executives in general, tends to be unconcerned about others’ points of view and develop a rigid view point on various issues with limited flexibility. They are generally perceived as arrogant and insensitive.

Similarly, empathy deficit organizations tend to be (a) obsessed with result/ outcome (numbers, top-line and bottom line rule the roost), (b) more process-centric/bureaucratic than people-centric, (c) more synthetic in approach with limited or no human touch, (d) too obsessed with monitoring performance regularly, (e) control-freak (including cost control at the cost of emotional disconnect) (f) oblivious of the need for “understanding, caring and developing” people, (g) deficient in trust and as a result focus too much on micro-management with lack of transparency. Such organizations’ culture is generally plagued by ‘blame game’, and ‘passing the buck’ syndromes. Leadership decisions and actions in such organizations are often disconnected from the ground realities, and rarely guided by due diligence and reflection.

Why is “empathy” so important for a leader?

Empathic skills are those that involve paying attention to people: like listening, attending to needs of others and building relationships. Besides, they foster trust through emotional connectedness, and instill loyalty and gratitude, Leaders with high empathic skills are likely to be sensitive to others’ feelings, which help them inspire and motivate others. Such skills help leaders in providing insights into others’ feelings and thinking and thereby anticipating how others may behave in different situations. They also tend to be highly achievement driven, focused as well as flexible. They can adapt their leadership styles with the maturity and the developmental needs of each team member and the context. They are generally compassionate to people’s problems and well equipped to help such employees to deal with personal problems effectively and independently.

Daniel Goleman, a leading authority in this field, has researched out that empathic skills form the foundation for all the social competencies important for work. It creates alignment and gains commitment and is positively related to job performance. It is perceived to be more important to job performance in cultures like India, which is marked with the “respect for hierarchy” (high power distance), compared to egalitarian cultures, where all people are treated as equals.

Having Empathy is not same as displaying empathy. Ability to “have” and “display” empathy are two distinct and complementary aspects of effective leadership that generally promote followership. Leaders can’t exist in vacuum, without followers. In order to elicit followership, leaders need to be empathic -more people focused with effective interpersonal skills.

These kinds of leaders are better equipped to deal effectively in delicate situations like (a) communicating unpleasant information like termination or denial of promotion; (b) assigning task to someone who is not interested; (c) offering constructive criticisms to someone, who would most likely get defensive; (d) dealing with someone who does not enjoy interacting; (e) handling resistance; and so on

Developing empathic skills

An empathic person demonstrates the four behaviours:

(a) listening attentively to what people say,

(b) demonstrating awareness of others’ feelings,

(c) exploring and understanding underlying perspective of others, and finally

(d) communicating and relating to others’ feelings, perspective and thinking.

Empathic skills can be developed, as they are not genetically driven traits through coaching, training and other developmental initiatives.

Empathy involves two critical and interdependent aspects namely empathic listening and empathic understanding. They together contribute to empathic communication, which is Covey’s fifth habit of personal effectiveness that says, seek first to understand than be understood.

In order to understand the feelings of the speaker, one needs to listen to empathically. This requires a shift in one’s approach to listening as most people listen with intent to reply!

Listening empathically means to listen with the intent to understand how the speaker feels, in addition to understanding his or her intent. Showing empathy involves identifying with others’ emotions and situations, even if not in agreement with them.

For empathic listening one should show interest in the speaker and listen carefully without interrupting. One should listen to what is spoken and what is not spoken (body language). One must have good eye contact and demonstrate positive body language, with open and caring posture. One should be sensitive to the speaker’s feelings and emotional state and respond in an appropriate tone. The most effective way of relating to the speaker is to start the conversation with ‘You feel…’, ‘It seems like….’, ‘As I understand it, you sound…..’, ‘It appears as if….’, ‘If I hear you correctly, you’d like…..’ and so on. By doing so, the listener would be able to establish rapport at personal level quickly.

Empathic listening is about the speaker, not the listener. Hence, during listening one needs to avoid questioning, probing, or criticizing one’s feelings. One should avoid lecturing, advising or giving autobiographical response like ‘when I was on that team…’

Empathic skills can be developed easily by being conscious of how one is interacting with others on a regular basis. First, one must keep a log of situations in which she or he feels one was able to demonstrate empathy and in which one felt she or he did not. The interactions or conversations, where one has failed to demonstrate empathy provide opportunities to develop empathy. These learning opportunities must be seized. Some of the basic things one must follow in each interaction are:

(a) To actively listen without interrupting,

(b) To avoid being defensive,

(c) To allow enough time for speakers to express whatever they want to express fully,

(d) To explore feelings, and thought process of the speakers without intimidating through aggressive questioning and probing.

The purpose is to explore, understand and relate to the feelings of the other person(s) in each interaction. Effective managing involves a combination of empathy and focus, of relationship awareness and task orientation.

When someone approaches with a problem, the most empathic way of helping the person is to:

(a) Feel happy that of all people around, the person has approached us to discuss his or her problems,

(b) Engage the person in an open ended conversation to understand her or his issues and push her or him to find a way out independently,

(c) Understand and relate to the feelings of the person with problems and finally,

(d) Help the person to deal with her or his issues.

One’s ‘understanding’ about other’s problems and feelings associated with the problem must be validated by checking with the speaker. The most effective way of validating the understanding is to communicating the understanding back to the speaker for confirmation. Such communication should start with leads like ‘Could it be…’, ‘I wonder if…’ ‘You are feeling…’, ‘I am not sure if I am with you but…’, or ‘Correct me, if I am wrong, but I am sensing….’ and so on.

Though, it is a simple four step process. However, it is easier said than done. Honestly speaking, there is no substitute to practice. Knowing is never enough. Practice makes a leader competent and confident. One should practice empathy on a daily basis.

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Topics: Leadership

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