Is the age of empathy in leadership over?
Empathy has been one of the hottest topics in human resources and business development since the onset of the Covid-19 pandemic. With companies making employee mental health a priority and leaders emphasising their compassion and support for workers during the crisis, it seemed for a while that we'd entered a new era of leadership where empathy featured front and centre.
And yet, as Rebecca Knight recently wrote in Business Insider, 'the harshness of recent layoffs [such as those at Google, Meta, and Amazon] suggests that any managerial empathy workers gained during the depths of the pandemic was short-lived [...] Today, as the pandemic fades and a recession looms, employers are back to their old ways — reacting to market conditions, sometimes haphazardly and sometimes without much compassion.'
Whether or not this shift away from empathy is universal or permanent has yet to be seen. In this article, we'll weigh in on the debate about the importance of empathy in leadership and what a commitment to empathetic leadership actually means for HR.
How is empathy defined?
Firstly, it's important to explain what is meant by empathy. While the term empathy can be tricky to pin down, emotion researchers tend to define empathy as:
'the ability to sense other people’s emotions, coupled with the ability to imagine what someone else might be thinking or feeling.' u
So, empathy means being able to see situations from another person's perspective, even if you don't share their exact circumstances or experiences. The word 'empathy' itself comes from the Greek 'em' meaning 'in' and 'pathos' meaning 'feeling', so being empathetic can be understood as being 'in feeling' with someone.
In fact, some psychologists identify three types of empathy:
- Emotional empathy: Feeling someone else's feelings, for example feeling a friend's pain or suffering as if it was your own. This type of empathy can help build strong connections between people.
- Cognitive empathy: Understanding what a person might be thinking and feeling. Cognitive empathy can make us better communicators because it helps us understand how other people might interpret our words.
- Compassionate empathy: Not just understanding or sharing the feelings of others, but taking action to help.
What's the difference between empathy and sympathy?
Empathy is sometimes confused with sympathy, but the two words have somewhat different meanings. Sympathy refers to feeling pity or sorrow for someone else's misfortune. While sympathy can be sincere and well intended, it still means that there is a distance between the individual and the person they feel sympathy towards. On the other hand, empathy refers to the stronger connection between people when someone can truly put themselves in the other person's shoes, understanding their thoughts and feelings.
What does empathy in leadership look like?
Empathy is crucial for effective leadership because it leads to a positive work environment where employees feel safe and supported. Supporting effective communication and the building of trust between team members, empathy allows teams to work better together for great results.
Practising active listening
Empathetic leaders are good at listening to their team members and make them feel that they have been heard. Active listening may involve the leader demonstrating that they are fully present and interested in what they are hearing using non-verbal cues and body language, sustaining eye contact, asking open-ending questions, and focusing on listening rather than talking.
Looking at things from multiple perspectives
Empathetic leaders seek to understand multiple perspectives and ways of looking at a situation. They understand that everyone is different and can bring unique perspectives to the table, and they ensure that space is made in team meetings and decision-making for multiple perspectives to be considered.
Building trust and authenticity
Empathetic leadership means leading by example, demonstrating authenticity and empathy that inspires trust amongst their team. Empathetic leaders follow through on commitments and keep promises to show that they are reliable and considerate.
Showing an interest in team members' wellbeing
Empathetic leaders demonstrate their interest in team members' wellbeing, looking out for signs of stress or anxiety and making sure that employees have the support they need. Empathetic managers also take an interest in employees' professional development.
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Benefits of leadership with empathy
Higher employee engagement
Empathetic leadership is key for high levels of employee engagement, with these leaders creating a happy and supportive workplace environment for all. When employees feel comfortable and valued by their managers they are more likely to feel satisfied in their roles and aligned with the company mission. Moreover, when leaders are known for their compassion and empathetic traits, employees feel more comfortable going to them with problems or questions. This approachability of leadership can go a long way to make employees feel that they matter and will be supported at work.
When empathetic leaders create a happy, healthy workplace, productivity and performance can rise as a result. It's not just because happier employees are better at their roles, but also because empathetic leadership encourages open communication between managers and employees. As a result, there is more clarity and sharing of ideas which can help tasks be completed more effectively.
More creative teams
When empathetic and compassionate leaders create trust with their teams, employees feel higher levels of psychological safety at work which allows them to be more creative. Employees who feel safe and supported are more happy to share ideas with their team and are able to take calculated creative risks, knowing that they will be supported even if these do not pay off.
Increased employee retention
Empathetic management can also have a beneficial impact on employee retention. It's a classic line that: “people don't quit jobs but quit bosses”, and there's certainly some truth to it. Empathetic leadership means a happier and more engaged workforce which are less likely to leave their roles. Improved retention also has beneficial knock-on effects such as lower hiring costs, higher productivity, and better workplace culture.
Empathetic leaders are more likely to identify and address instances of discrimination or bias and make an effort to understand the range of perspectives and experiences of people on their team. By encouraging open communication and building trust, empathetic leadership makes inclusion a priority and helps everyone feel heard.
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Can empathy be bad for leadership?
While empathetic leadership has some overwhelming positives and is linked to better business performance, there are also challenges associated with being or working with an empathetic leader.
Decision-making is a key skill necessary for effective leadership, and some degree of empathy can go a long way to support compassionate and thoughtful decision-making. However, an excess of empathy can actually stifle the decision-making process and lead to choices based on emotion rather than the facts of a situation. For this reason, it's important for leaders to balance empathy with a cool head in order to make good decisions.
Emotional distress and burnout risk
Empathetic leaders often take on the problems and anxieties of their team as if they were their own, compounding any personal work-related stress or struggles in their personal lives that they are already experiencing. The burden of these emotions, when not properly managed, can become overwhelming for well-meaning leaders who struggle to separate themselves from their team's feelings.
Continued levels of stress and anxiety can eventually lead to burnout for managers, and their productivity and performance may suffer as a result. Managers who are burnt out from the emotional weight of their team's struggles are unable to be effective leaders and may experience emotional and physical symptoms such as exhaustion, headaches, anxiety, and trouble sleeping, which can lead to increased absence as a result.
For this reason, leaders need to be able to find the right balance of empathy, showing compassion for their team members but not internalising their struggles too much. Leadership coaching or eLearning courses can be beneficial for leaders learning to apply this balance in their roles.
Difficulty disciplining team members
Finally, highly empathetic leaders may struggle to hold team members accountable or discipline them when the need arises, such as after repeated tardiness from one employee. This reluctance can lead to continued problems and a decline in performance from the team.
HR's role in empathetic leadership
What exactly does empathetic leadership have to do with the human resources department? As HR professionals, you play a key role in developing leadership skills in your organisation in a number of ways:
- Providing leaders with empathy training and resources: HR can encourage current and future leaders to practise skills such as active listening and emotional intelligence using eLearning courses, resources, and training days.
- Taking a lead in internal comms: HR can help organisations create a focus on empathy in internal communications. Encouraging openness and authenticity using these communications is key to supporting a culture of empathy within your organisation.
- Focusing on diversity and inclusion: HR can support empathetic leadership with key D&I initiatives such as unconscious bias training or employee resource groups.
- Hiring with empathy in mind: When hiring employees who may someday become managers and even senior leaders in the organisation, HR can hire with a focus on empathy. Selecting candidates who can demonstrate empathy and compassion can benefit the company culture and be a good sign of future leadership capabilities.
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Supporting empathy in the workplace with employee relations software
To cultivate empathy in your workplace, HR software with employee relations features is a must-have. XCD HR and payroll software has been built as a people-first platform that supports your HR strategy and creates a more empathetic workplace for everyone.
Some of the key employee relations features XCD software offers include employee feedback and engagement tools, making it easier than ever to evaluate the mood and happiness of a workforce. With real-time data reporting and AI-powered predictive analytics, it's easier than ever for HR to gain immediate insights into the emotional experience of the workforce. With key quantitative and qualitative data gathered through surveys, absenteeism metrics, retention rates, and more, your human resources team can gain valuable insights that support an empathetic approach to human capital management.
Another valuable HR and payroll software tool that can support empathy in the workplace is the XCD performance management module. Helping your team replace the formal and much-dreaded annual appraisal with a more consistent, informal, and mentoring-inspired approach to performance management, XCD software can promote more empathy and compassion throughout the process. Employees and managers can contribute separately to their performance review forms using the self-service portal, making performance management a quick and easy part of their day-to-day work. Plus, 360 degree feedback and self-evaluation features bring balance and self-reflection to the performance management process, encouraging employees to take more ownership of the process.
To find out more about how XCD HR and payroll software's employee relations features can support a more empathetic workplace, book a demo of the platform today. Or, if you have any questions, feel free to reach out to our team of experts.