What is empathetic leadership and how does it differ from EQ, emotional management, and other leadership skills?
To understand empathetic leadership, it’s first necessary to understand what empathy is, what qualities make a good leader, and only then can we fit the two together.
What Is Empathetic Leadership and Why Is It Important?
An empathic person can feel and understand what others are feeling.
It is an emotional quality that can be very valuable for leaders, for several reasons:
- Employees are more likely to trust leaders who can empathize with and relate to them
- Those better workplace relationships can improve key employee metrics, such as employee productivity, engagement, and retention
- As a result, relationships with those employees will be stronger, which can boost employee engagement and performance
- A stronger connection between leaders and subordinates can reduce conflict, miscommunication, and workplace friction
- In a remote or hybrid workplace, empathy can be essential, since social isolation and collaboration can present challenges for both managers and teams
Ultimately, empathetic leadership can contribute to an improved workplace, which, in turn, can improve the organization’s culture.
Other Traits that Make a Good Leader
Empathy is a critical leadership trait, but effective leaders need other qualities as well.
Effective leaders, for instance:
- Must be driven and have a vision they are leading employees towards
- Need the ability to maintain accountability and be firm
- Will stay objective and balanced, regardless of one’s personal feelings
- Put the organization’s needs first
In short, leaders need a set of traits that keep employees motivated, while also ensuring they support the organization’s goals.
Cultivating Empathy in the Workplace
Since empathy is usually considered a component of emotional intelligence, leaders who want to become more empathetic can start by building their EQ.
Yet empathy is not only a valuable trait for leaders, it is also valuable for employees.
Empathy among workers, after all, can:
- Reduce miscommunications
- Improve social ties
- Enhance the customer experience
Some organizations have gone so far as to make empathy a core value of their organizational culture. While this may not be the right approach for every company, there are ways to improve empathy and realize some of the benefits covered above.
A few examples include:
- Proactively holding social events with employees, either remotely or in person
- Inviting total participation from employees in key business initiatives, such as organizational change programs
- Training managers on the importance of empathy
- Instituting practices that enhance communication, such as surveys that gauge employee sentiment
In short, to see any real results, managers and leaders should instill empathy into the workplace. The more that empathy becomes a part of the everyday work environment, the better the outcomes will be.
Despite all of the positives we have discussed so far, it is important to note that too much empathy can actually be a bad thing.
The Downsides of Empathy
Empathy can be either good or bad, according to Ronald E. Riggio, a professor of Leadership and Organizational Psychology.
He defines three types of empathy:
- Perspective-taking. This is “cognitive” empathy, or understanding another’s perspective from a purely intellectual standpoint.
- Empathic concern. When we recognize and can “tune into” another person’s feelings, this would be considered empathic concern. It is also what most of us think of when we hear the term “empathy.”
- Personal distress. In this instance, the empathic person actually feels what the other person is feeling. This type of empathy could be considered “too much” empathy, since it involves transferring another person’s emotions onto oneself.
According to the definitions set forth here, the empathetic leader would be one who feels “empathic concern.”
The first definition, while it can be useful, doesn’t actually connote empathy. The third definition takes empathy too far and risks imbalance.
For instance, a leader who feels too strongly what others are feeling risks becoming imbalanced and losing objectivity. In such cases, leaders will not have control over their emotions – instead, their emotions will have control over them.
Emotional Management and Empathetic Leadership
Emotional management refers, unsurprisingly, to one’s ability to manage their emotions. Someone who becomes too emotional or undergoes personal distress – as mentioned above – may find it useful to learn more about emotional management.
This doesn’t mean “suppressing” emotions.
Instead, according to Psychology Today, it means:
- Feeling emotions but not being identified with them
- Not resisting emotions
- Remembering that emotions are part of the human experience
- Realizing that emotions are not positive or negative
There is no one-size-fits-all way to develop emotional intelligence, empathy, or emotional management skills.However, with the right approach, it is possible to build one’s emotional skill set and bring those skills into the workplace – regardless of whether one is a manager, a business leader, or a frontline employee.
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