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The Power of Leadership Empathy - Ideas for Leaders
Idea #811

The Power of Leadership Empathy

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KEY CONCEPT

Empathic leaders and managers increase employee productivity and engagement, help employees feel respected, reduce burnout and increase loyalty.


IDEA SUMMARY

Empathy entails making the effort to understand others’ perspectives and emotions, and demonstrating that understanding through care and concern. In the workplace, leadership empathy is manifested through actions ranging from flexible work-at-home options to a concerted effort to create an inclusive environment for workers of all races, genders and sexual orientations.

A study from Catalyst, a consultancy focused on increasing opportunities for women in the workplace, offers empirical evidence on the benefits of empathy from senior leaders and managers for employees and the firm. 

The study was based on a survey of 889 employees, managers and senior leaders in the U.S., a group diverse in terms of gender (women representing 51% of respondents, men 47%, trans or nonbinary 2%) and race or ethnicity (34% white, 32% black, 19% Asian, 10% Latinx). Nearly 20% of respondents identified as lesbian, gay, bisexual, queer or asexual. Participants included employees and managers from a cross-section of industries and all levels of the organizations: 26% of participants were front-line, non-management employees; 11% top rung C-level executives; and the remainder dispersed among first-level, second-level and senior-level managers.

The survey results showed that empathic senior leaders and managers…

Boosted innovation and engagement. 61% of people working for highly empathic senior leaders said they were often or always innovative at work; that figure drops to 13% of people working for less empathic senior leaders. The negative impact on engagement is also pronounced, from 76% rates of engagement for people working for empathic senior leaders to 32% for people working with less empathic senior leaders.

Decreased burnout. Working for less empathic senior leaders increased the percentage of burnout for women of colour from 54% to 67%. Manager empathy had a significant impact on women regardless of colour: 54% of women working for empathic managers felt burned out, compared to 63% working for less empathic managers.

Increased employee sense of being respected and valued. 40% of women of colour who considered their senior leaders less empathic felt that their life circumstances were respected and valued by their companies. In contrast, 80% of women of colour working for empathic senior leaders felt their life circumstances were respected and valued. Empathic managers had a similar impact, with feelings of respect and value by women of colour moving from 34% under less empathic managers to 73%. Interestingly, empathic managers had an even greater impact on white women (29% feeling disrespected and undervalued by less empathic managers vs. 87% feeling respected and valued by empathic managers).

Helped employees manage the balance of life and work. 86% of people working for empathic senior leaders and 82% of people working for empathic managers felt they were able to balance work and life demands, compared to 60% and 57% of people working for less empathic senior leaders and less empathic managers respectively.

Fostered sentiments of inclusion. 50% of people working for highly empathic senior leaders often or always experienced inclusion at work, compared to just 17% of people working for less empathic senior leaders. Empathic managers led 42% of men and 42% of women to experience inclusion at work; however, the improvement over less empathic managers was more striking for women (from 9% to 42%) than men (from 22% to 42%).

Lowered employee intent to leave. With regard to an employee’s intention to leave their companies, empathy played a role for just one category of respondents: women of colour. 33% of women of colour with less empathic senior leaders reported thinking about leaving, compared to only 18% of women of colour with highly empathic senior leaders.


BUSINESS APPLICATION

To become more empathic as a senior leader or manager, work on developing the three types of empathy: 

  • cognitive empathy (understanding or imagining the feelings and perspective of others)
  • affective empathy (feeling concern for or sharing the emotions of others)
  • behavioural empathy (taking action, for example through active listening, to better understand others). 

Based on these three types of empathy, study author Tara Van Bommel offers six actions leaders and managers can take to show empathy:

  1. Ask employees to share their feelings and reflect with them on what they’ve just shared. Avoid talking about your own experiences and feelings: it’s not about you.
  2. Take the time to meet with your employees and get to know them as people and not just workers.
  3. When employees are sharing an emotional experience or difficulty, let them speak without interruption or trying to divert the conversation.
  4. Don’t be afraid to explicitly share your concern and caring for your employees. In other words, say it when you feel it.
  5. When an employee is speaking to you, don’t rush to fill in silences. A good rule of thumb is to count to five slowly when the employee grows silent, giving the opportunity for the employee to continue speaking. 
  6. Observe employee facial expressions and body language to better understand how they are feeling. Pay equal to your attention to your own body language: good body posture and eye contact let employees know you are actively listening.
     

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FURTHER READING

  Tara Van Bommel’s profile at Catalyst

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Institutions

Idea conceived

September 16, 2021

Idea posted

Jan 2022
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