Leading with the power of empathy
Patrick Psaila
July 6, 2022

Imagine you have just parked your car in a parking area, and you see and hear someone slamming their car door shut, catching their fingers in the door frame. In that moment you wince and cringe with a facial expression of “ouch that must have hurt!”

This happens because of neuron clusters in the brain called mirror systems. These neurons make it possible for humans to perceive and feel other humans’ actions, emotions, and sensations by replicating them in their own brain. Neuroscientists believe that this is what makes empathy possible.

An article entitled ‘The Mind’s Mirror’ by Lea Winerman, from the American Psychological Association quotes renowned neuroscientist Vittorio Gallese as saying that “this neural mechanism is involuntary and automatic. We can tell what people are feeling or doing without having to reason it out. At the root, as humans we identify with the person we are facing as someone like ourselves.”

The capacity for empathy in humans is critical for our survival as a species. By being able to put ourselves in other people’s shoes and experience thoughts and feelings as they experience them, we can connect with, understand, and support each other. This creates a sense of unity and cohesion that is necessary for communities to cooperate, solve problems and face potential threats together.

Mainstream psychology identifies two types of empathy, and both are necessary for maintaining healthy relationships. The first is cognitive empathy often referred to as perspective taking. It allows us to understand how someone else is feeling, take their perspective and imagine what it is like to be in their situation.

The second is emotional empathy, and it goes one step deeper. It involves feeling with the other person and experiencing some of the same emotional responses as them. Emotional empathy is often what triggers us to reach out and help the other person. The shift from understanding the ‘what’ to actually feeling the emotional impact of the ‘experience’ is a powerful catalyst for compassion.

This means that we not only understand what another person is going through and experience a degree of similar emotions, but we also feel compelled to take action to support and help the other person. In my experience, this creates the most powerful sense of solidarity, connection, and cohesion in any group of people.

The workplace is a main social arena where we spend a significant part of our lives. When leaders are able to create a culture of empathy they provide the right conditions for psychological safety, collaboration, trust, creative problem solving, conflict management, and a strong sense of belonging.

These are critical factors for employee retention and give organisations a competitive advantage. In a work context that is fraught with uncertainty, rapid change, and insecurity, empathy has become more crucial than ever before.

How can you, as a leader, nurture a culture of empathy?

First, you need to embrace empathy as a core value and recognise its power and significance. You need to understand that when people feel genuinely heard, understood, considered, and cared-for, they are more likely to come on board and do what is necessary for the success of the organisation even during the tough times, or when difficult decisions need to be taken.

When you set the right tone and are seen to care deeply and genuinely about the impact of your decisions on your people, they will be more likely to understand, accept, and cooperate with what needs to be done.

An essential element in building an empathic culture is to promote empathy as an attitude that cascades from the very top and infuses every corner of the organisation. This means that empathy is integrated in every aspect of the organisation’s life from its business strategy to its most fundamental operational structures and policies.

It is also considered a behavioural expectation for all employees, especially leaders, to contribute towards a supportive environment where people have each other’s best interest in mind and help each other through daily challenges. This can take the form of very practical examples such as creating flexible working arrangements, buddy systems, internal coaching support programmes, accessibility to mentoring, and corporate wellness programmes.

The final aspect is to learn and practice communicating with empathy as a skill. Helen Riess from the Harvard Medical School emphasises the importance that leaders transmit a clear message that all people matter. She explains how empathic leaders first seek to understand by listening, asking, and exploring before deciding and acting.

Skills such as active listening, asking effective questions, identifying emotions, offering verbal and non-verbal feedback, summarising and reflecting emotion and content are all practices that leaders need to learn and master.

Creating a culture of empathy will go a long way towards making your organisation a place where people want to work in and dedicate the best hours of their day for. When people feel cared about and valued as whole persons, when they feel genuinely understood and respected, and when they feel supported and encouraged, they will want to stay, and they will want to give their best.

This is not to say that empathy alone is enough. Solid strategies, efficient operational systems, good planning, fair working conditions, and clear expectations, are all fundamentally essential elements of good organisational leadership. Empathy, however, is an incredibly powerful motivational force. It is a fundamental value, a deep commitment, and should be the heart and soul of any business model.

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