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The Art of Empathic Leadership


Empathy is a critical skill for leaders in today’s business world. With diverse and widespread teams, managers must be able to understand and connect with their employees on a human level. However, research shows many leaders are missing the mark when it comes to empathic leadership. A recent survey found 52% of respondents felt their company’s empathetic efforts were dishonest, suggesting managers try but don’t always get it right. For new managers overseeing people for the first time, demonstrating empathy can be especially tricky. By focusing on key areas like active listening, avoiding assumptions, and making time, leaders can develop truly empathic leadership.


Active Listening Shows You Care


The first key to empathic leadership is active listening. When employees come to you with an issue, don’t just nod along. Truly focus on what they are saying by eliminating distractions, leaning in, maintaining open body language, and making eye contact. Work on understanding their perspective rather than just waiting for your turn to talk. Ask thoughtful follow-up questions to show the person you are absorbed in what they have to say. Refrain from quick responses or solutions until they have shared all they need to share.


Active listening demonstrates to employees that you care about them as individuals. It builds trust and helps create an environment where people feel comfortable coming to you about professional or personal issues. Though it may seem time-consuming initially, active listening pays off through stronger engagement, retention, and performance. Set the intention from the start to listen in order to understand the other person's perspective rather than listening just to reply.


Don't Feel the Need to Have All the Answers


Another aspect of empathic leadership is recognizing you don't have to fix every problem brought to you. Particularly if someone comes to you about a personal issue, they may just want a listening ear, not a solution. As leaders rise in organizations, problem-solving skills often propel their success. However, applying this same desire to fix things quickly can backfire with employees looking for empathy.


Rather than immediately jumping into solution mode, give the person ample time and space to share their thoughts and feelings. Avoid trying to minimize their issue or relate it back to yourself. Be comfortable with silence as they work through emotions. Offer reassurance you hear and understand them. Then, ask how they would like to proceed. Make it clear you are there to support them in any way you can, whether that means discussing solutions or simply providing moral support. Suppressing the need to fix everything demonstrates you see the person as more than just an employee with a work problem.


Tailor Your Responses to Each Employee


Empathic leadership also requires customizing your responses to each employee versus taking a one-size-fits-all approach. While it may be faster to rely on template phrases, empathy means tuning into the specific individual in front of you. Consider factors like their personality, background, communication style, and your relationship dynamic. Meet introverts where they are by providing more quiet space. Engage extraverts through active dialogue. Adjust your communication method for remote versus in-office interactions.


Before responding, reflect on the person’s unique situation as well as your own biases that may influence your perspective. Be careful not to inadvertently minimize issues that feel small to you but loom large for someone else. Take the time to craft a carefully tailored response instead of relying on platitudes. Employees will recognize and appreciate you are seeing and hearing them as individuals.


Make the Time to Show You Care


Finally, empathic leadership requires making the time for your people, both individually and as a team. When employees approach you with a personal or professional issue, make sure you schedule dedicated time to discuss it. If you don't have availability in the moment, be honest about that, but immediately put a meeting on the calendar. Then be sure to keep that commitment - do not cancel or cut the meeting short.


Similarly, incorporate bonding experiences like team lunches or off-site activities into the schedule. Be flexible with policies around things like PTO and work hours when possible so employees feel supported. Keep lines of communication open through weekly check-ins, open door policies, anonymous surveys and regular feedback loops. Making time and being present demonstrates to employees they are a priority, not an afterthought. This cultivates trust, engagement and a sense of genuine empathy.


Conclusion


Developing truly empathic leadership takes time, effort and commitment. But putting employees first ultimately pays dividends through stronger job satisfaction, performance and retention. Start focusing on active listening over quick solutions. Discover responses tailored to individuals, not just generic phrases. Make room in the schedule for quality time with both individuals and teams. By improving their leadership empathy, managers create workplaces where people feel valued, heard and cared for.

 

Jonathan H. Westover, PhD is Chief Academic & Learning Officer (HCI Academy); Chair/Professor, Organizational Leadership (UVU); OD Consultant (Human Capital Innovations). Read Jonathan Westover's executive profile here.



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