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How To Be An Empathetic Leader

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Empathy has become an increasingly critical skill.

Leaders must be able to put themselves in the employee’s shoes and understand their motivations, challenges, ambitions and feelings to build trust.

Empathetic leaders inspire, influence and connect.

But how do you develop your empathy skills?

It’s a question we explored during our latest leadership and management skills webinar, which you can watch here.

James White, our CEO, was joined by Dan Boniface, our head of training, for the session.

And they began by exploring the growing importance of empathy in leadership.

“We have seen a shift in terms of what people want from the workplace,” Dan said.

“They want to work with leaders and managers who get them and have got their back.

“They want leaders who are compassionate and kind.

“They want to work in an environment where they feel understood.

“It is a shift that has been happening for some time. But it was accelerated by the pandemic.”

Leading with empathy can result in more effective communication, increased respect and better problem-solving. It is why it features in all our leadership and management courses.



Kind leaders versus nice leaders

Empathy can be a confusing term and is often confused or misinterpreted as leaders being soft and too lenient.

It is also regularly muddled with sympathy.

To ease the misunderstanding, our panel explained it as the difference between kind (empathetic) and nice (sympathetic) leaders.

Dan said: “When I started my management career, I was told not to be friends with people and to be nice, which is a bit of a contradiction and not great advice.

“If you look back at the leaders you’ve had, the kind ones are those you think were fair and balanced. They were happy to tell you when you got it right and when you got it wrong. And they supported you.

“The nice leaders are passive and afraid to challenge. They sugarcoat information and make everything feel ok.

“Kind leaders will rock the boat when it is needed. They will face difficult conversations and explain problems realistically. And they will lead during challenging times.”

Let’s explore some of those in more depth.

Rocking the boat and difficult conversation: Sometimes, things need shaking up, and change is necessary for improvement. A kind manager will not shy away from that. The key is to be open and honest about why those changes are needed and the potential benefits. And not just try to make it feel nice to make you feel better.

Leading during challenging times: In the initial stages of a crisis, you need to be more autocratic as a leader to make sure our plans are executed, and we maintain business as usual. After that, it is about being there for our team and making sure you have a release from the pressure.”

Empathetic leaders understand other people, their emotions and feelings and guide them from a negative mindset. A sympathetic leader plays the victim role with someone and pities them.

If you struggled to meet the deadline on a project and found the finance team would not give you the funding you need, a sympathetic manager would say something like, “I get what you mean - they always block what I want to do’.”

An empathetic manager would be more like, ‘I understand it is frustrating – what can we do about it?’.

Dan said: “My daughter was ill this week, and we were flapping about childcare and what we would do.

“My wife messaged her manager, and he replied, ‘Sorry to hear she is ill - please prioritise her health’.

“That reply is short, sweet and to the point. But it is a great example of empathetic leadership.”



Here comes the science bit

You may not know it, but there are three parts to empathy.

And true empathetic leadership requires all three components.

Cognitive empathy: This is understanding the other person’s perspective and what they are thinking and feeling. It is also about understanding their perception versus the reality of the situation. What you may think is trivial, could be a significant problem for a team member. So, don’t dismiss their view.

Emotional empathy: Let’s understand the feelings of the other person. How often do you get asked ‘How are you feeling?’ on a day-to-day basis? Or ‘What’s on your mind?’ rather than ‘How are you?’ A couple of extra words, but those questions now make people think a bit more and help us recognise when they are doing well and when they are struggling.

Empathetic concern: This is understanding what people need from you as a leader and the action you can take to help them. Do they need a coach? A mentor? A buddy? Maybe they need someone they can vent to or who checks in with them first thing in the morning.



How do you embrace more empathy in your leadership style?

Well, a great way to add empathy to your leadership is to improve your listening skills.

But listening is harder than it sounds. Our panel believe there are five stages to empathetic listening.

Level 1: Listen for gist – This is where we try to work out the main reason for the conversation.

Level 2: Listen to rebut – This is where we wait for our turn to jump in and start talking.

Level 3: Listen for logic – This is where we try to understand the other person’s thinking and formulate opinions about it.

Level 4: Listen for emotion – This is where we listen to what is and is not being said. It involves considering eye contact and body language.

Level 5: Listen for point of view – What is their perspective and what makes them feel like that?



Conscious leadership

You may have heard a lot of talk lately about conscious leadership.

It is the buzzword of the moment.

How does it sit with empathetic leadership?

Well, they are pretty similar.

“I’m not a huge fan of terms like this, but I like the principles behind it,” Dan said.

“A conscious leader leads with thought and intent, so their actions, behaviours and how they conduct themselves resonate with the rest of the team.

“It is about being present in the moment with the team but also being able to step back and see the bigger picture."

“And making clear decisions on how to move forward that will benefit the business, while looking after our team members.”

Dan says another essential part of conscious leadership is to ask first and tell later.

“Ask people questions first to help you get the information you need about what they need from you, and then you can do something about it.”



Four practical steps to empathy

Empathy is an essential leadership skill.

But how do you develop more empathy? How do you demonstrate you have this skill?

There are four vital steps:

Perspective thinking: Taking other people’s views on board, understanding what they think and how they feel.

Staying out of judgement: Don’t make conclusions about the situation. Clear your head of assumptions about the situation to create a better understanding.

Recognising emotions: Recognising and reacting thoughtfully to the emotions of others.

Communicating it back to people: When you recognise those emotions, say ‘You look like you are a bit upset’, ‘You look like something is troubling you’. Reflecting the emotion back to people is a powerful way to show people you are with them and want to help.



How can you persuade your leaders that empathetic leadership is the best approach?

Telling a senior leader they need to be more empathetic, does not sound like a conversation that will land particularly well.

But there are more subtle ways of encouraging them to be more empathetic.

Dan said: “If you tell someone ‘You must be empathetic, it is the culture, it is something you must do’, it has little impact.

“If they can see the benefits of being an empathetic manager, that has much more impact.

“If we think about a senior middle manager, often they are time-poor. Show them that by being more empathetic and giving their team more responsibility, you will have more time.

“Link it back to something that the manager is struggling with.

“A great way to do this would be to collaborate with them. Suggest meeting up once a month, and in those conversations, begin to gently talk about how you do things.

“It is a subtle nudge.”


Want to know more about empathetic leadership and how we can help? Get in touch.




The BCF Group has been helping organisations develop their talent, inspire their people and overcome obstacles and challenges for the past 25 years.

We deliver training that makes a difference. Find out more about our business coaching, management training and interpersonal skills options.



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