Joan, a central member of your marketing team, is uncharacteristically struggling. Long respected as a top contributor, recently she’s been late for meetings, visibly distracted, and less engaged during team discussions. Even her once stellar reports feel sloppy and “phoned in.” Frustrated, you prepare to provide Joan with some very direct feedback during her next one-on-one. She is letting you and the team down and it’s time to get her back on track.
But wait. Before you schedule that feedback session, let’s pause to consider an important question: how much do you actually know about Joan and her life outside of the office? Do your assumptions about her performance problems shift if you learn:
If your answer is yes, your empathy muscle is ready to be engaged. Rather than rushing to conclusions, (e.g., Joan’s not committed to her job and is probably interviewing), consider adopting a more curious mindset and applying the most respectful interpretation (MRI) of the situation. In other words, what is the most positive way to view this situation when you’re not sure of the other person’s intent or motives? The fact is, you don’t yet know the reason behind Joan’s declining performance, but if you approach the situation using MRI, then you will be more likely to build trust and identify solutions that benefit you, Joan and the team.
As a people leader, you likely invest time and energy into your professional development. Honing skills like critical thinking, communication, and problem solving is time well spent. In addition to these core leadership abilities, one of the most impactful – and sometimes underrated – skills you can cultivate is the one that unites us as humans: empathy.
Empathy is simply defined as the ability to understand and share the feelings of another person. It’s a skill that most of us use in our daily lives as we interact with friends and family, but it sometimes gets checked at the workplace door under the guise of behaving “professionally.” This would be fine if we only interacted with machines all day. But since most of us work with other humans in some capacity, research indicates that empathy is vital to achieving a healthy, supportive workplace culture.
A 2018 survey by State of Workplace Empathy revealed that 96% of respondents ranked empathy as an important company culture trait, yet, 92% strongly believe that empathy remains undervalued. Another study by the Center for Creative Leadership (CCI) reports that managers who show higher levels of empathy toward their team are viewed as better performers by their bosses. Similarly, a study by research firm DDI found that empathy is one of the most important drivers of overall performance among people managers. Unfortunately, that same study found that only 40% of business leaders exhibit empathy proficiency, meaning many of us have some work to do.
In some circles, empathy still gets skewed as a soft skill, meaning it’s a “nice to have” not a necessity. A recent Catalyst study disagrees, asserting that organizations that encourage leaders to cultivate empathy are more likely to drive innovation, boost engagement, retain top talent, and role model diversity, equity and inclusion.
The good news is, learning a soft skill like empathy is anything but hard; you don’t need an advanced degree to become more empathetic. That’s because empathy is both a trait and a skill. Within the empathy spectrum, there are people who are naturally more predisposed to display empathetic responses, but much like a muscle, it’s also a skill that can be trained and strengthened over time. Plus, the more you use it, the more natural it becomes.
Experts have identified three distinct types of empathy: cognitive, emotional, and compassionate. Let’s unpack what each of these looks like:
Study after study shows that empathy is key to successfully leading individuals, teams, and whole organizations. Here are some practical guidelines to help you lead with empathy and become a more effective leader:
Learning to lead with compassion, empathy and understanding will help you grow your team into a place where everyone can – and wants to – do their best work.