Early on in my leadership journey I had a challenging staff member I just couldn’t connect with; extremely good at their job, inspiring and motivating to those they worked with, but they didn’t respect my position or think me worthy of the role I was given. I had a number of issues with their accountability and behaviours, but just didn’t have the tools or experience to know how to manage them effectively. We got to the stage of approaching a performance management plan, despite the production of good work. Luckily, I had a very experienced colleague (who later became my boss) who sat alongside my struggle to find the right way forward, listening to my mistakes, understanding the challenges I was experiencing, coaching me, guiding me, cheering me on. Never before, or since, have I felt so unjudged or supported. Empathy in action; which had positive impacts for me on so many levels, including teaching me the right way to lead, and a trusting working relationship with that colleague that evolved into friendship.

The foundation of effective leadership is to engage, inspire and motivate others to produce results in the unknown, the challenging and the difficult, through connection and trust. Empathy connects us to the emotions that underpin another person’s experience; it builds connection and trust with other people. Empathy is achieved by jumping into another person’s struggle with them – feeling with them (not feeling for them); empathy is not sympathy, giving advice or judgment disguised as concern. Empathy is critical to building connection and trust with those we lead.

The most effective leaders are those that establish an emotional connection with their people through empathy. Emotional connections allow them to build trust, engagement, and motivation, all of which leads to enhanced accountability, responsibility, cooperation, collaboration, productivity and capacity for growth.

Leaders with empathy give those around them the feeling of being heard and recognised. An empathetic leader listens attentively, sees the perspective of another person and accepts it as truth (for that person) even when it is different from their own perspective; they are non-judgmental. Empathetic leaders have a strong desire to understand another person’s feelings and communicate that understanding; to do this effectively emotional intelligence is integral, you need to be fluent in the language of feelings (emotional literacy) and comfortable in the world of emotions. They are unafraid to sit in another person’s discomfort with them. In doing so they become connected with that person.

In the absence of empathy, a leader lacks connection and trust with their people. Leaders lacking empathy instead demonstrate sympathy (feeling for someone). They fail to listen and understand the perspectives of others; neglect to understand another person’s feelings; miss the opportunity to jump into another person’s struggle with them – instead feeling disappointed by or uncomfortable with someone else’s pain, judging them or taking an ‘I told you so’ attitude, rushing to make them feel better, or confusing connection with the opportunity to ‘one-up’ them. Leaders lacking empathy sow distrust, indifference, lack of accountability, lack of responsibility and low productivity and growth. Their teams lack purpose, engagement, and motivation. I have been guilty of this. Many years ago, before I understood the value of empathy in leadership, I had a staff member that failed to properly prepare their visa documentation for an overseas work trip (despite much prompting and offer of guidance). It became necessary for them to travel interstate to the relevant embassy to have the visa granted the day before the planned travel, which required higher level authorisation. This being the last in a long list of issues with this individual, rather than displaying empathy and support, I instructed them to explain the situation and seek the authorisation from up the management chain themselves, in the hope it taught them a lesson (akin to being sent to the Principal’s office). Needless to say (though I didn’t realise it at the time), my actions caused great harm to our working relationship.

Intentionally build your empathy skills

For most female leaders, empathy comes naturally. But, like any skill, practice makes perfect, and it can (and should) be intentionally exercised. Practicing empathy can have immediate benefits for yourself, the recipient and the broader team and organisation. Try these strategies to intentionally exercise and build your empathy skills:

  • Consider and observe which of the above empathy skills you practice, and those you need practice in. Are you listening attentively? Are you identifying with the emotions of others?
  • Consider ways in which empathy might be absent in your leadership of others – what might you be doing to block empathy? Are you talking rather than listening? Are you judging others? Are you giving advice rather than understanding someone else’s emotions?
  • Pay attention to situations in the workplace where you see empathy present or absent – what actions did you observe? What were the impacts?
  • Practice applying your empathy skills and observe the impacts for yourself and others. For example, seek to understand and acknowledge any stress and anxiety your team may be feeling and be sensitive and caring to their difficulties and distress. As well as building trust and connection, this will support and develop their emotional health.