Published On: October 7, 2022|Categories: News|By |

In a world that is becoming more complex every day, there is a toxic belief that leaders display strength and assertiveness by being cutthroat, direct and decisive. However, leadership encompasses a grander scope than simply focusing on day-to-day implementations of pre-formulated guidelines. Leadership entails positively influencing and guiding employees to work towards a vision that they can be excited about. Many research studies reveal that the often-underrated soft skill, ‘empathy’ is the decisive feature that helps leaders transcend mediocrity, expand their sphere of influence, and create a legacy.

The ability to inspire and empower people lies more in emotional determinants than intellectual shrewdness. Without the ability to relate to and connect with people, understand what drives them and why, it becomes impossible to motivate and inspire them. Empathetic leaders have a genuine interest in their employees’ lives; the challenges they face, and their overall feelings. Interpersonal relationships underpin successful outcomes in the workplace because people must work together to achieve collective objectives. Empathy is a key element of servant leadership, and it helps to build trust and a positive work culture.

In a negative environment, the workplace is characterized by hostility, stress, and selfishness as everyone focuses on their own agenda and their need to ‘shine.’ In a positive work environment, people feel comfortable, productive, motivated, and part of something bigger than themselves. This kind of culture is achieved through empathetic relationships between co-workers, camaraderie and sharing the credit for group achievements. An empathetic leader promotes these kinds of relationships within their organizations by modelling the right behaviors that then trickle down to the rest of the organization to create the right culture. An empathetic workplace leads to employees developing a sense of trust and belonging within their organization.

Leaders come in all shapes and sizes. As a Leadership and Career Coach, I have worked with different personality types. I have found that people with a choleric personality type naturally gravitate towards leadership roles. Cholerics are strong-willed, results-oriented, practical-minded and domineering. They are driven to take control, overcome obstacles and they have little patience for non-performance. These visionary leaders are goal-oriented. However, one of their biggest problems is that they do not easily empathize with the feelings of others or show compassion. Results can become more important to them than people. If you are a choleric, you will need to work on developing the ability to empathize with people. Your appetite for achievement is commendable and your natural drive will set you apart from others. Your dedication to your organization is a great asset. However, you need to work with people to achieve your vision. Your natural reaction to situations where people try to explain their issues may be dismissive, “I have no time to indulge in warm, fuzzy feelings,’’ or “people are just slacking and making excuses.” However, if you take the time to press pause on driving performance objectives and genuinely connect with employees, you will find your leadership journey to be far more rewarding.

To become a genuinely empathetic leader, practice active listening. Show a level of understanding by taking the time to gain a deeper understanding of the plight of a struggling employee and ask questions. Schedule regular check-ins with your direct reports to see how they are doing. You can also extend this practice to include key customers and suppliers. Finding time to talk on a personal level can make the difference to your bottom line and it will help you to take the right action in time to prevent key employees from quitting the organization.

At the opposite end of the spectrum, there are leaders who focus excessively on emotions. Can there really be a scenario where a leader attempts to be too empathetic? Empathy is lauded as one of the strongest predictors of leadership effectiveness. However, too much of a good thing can also be problematic. Everything in life is about balance. Overly kind, caring and sensitive people can be labeled as ‘weak.’ Being an empathetic leader does not mean being weak, allowing yourself to be trampled upon or being a pushover. Besides empathy, leaders must leverage other facets of leadership such as purpose, vision, strength, and assertiveness. Are you the type of leader who spends time endlessly discussing employee issues whilst neglecting the fact that work must also be done? Do you know when to stand firm and when to make concessions? Leaders that are loved, respected and influential can connect with people. They drive performance through inspiration and because they genuinely understand their employees, they can make the right judgement calls in different scenarios. Effective leaders know where to draw the line. Not going overboard with empathy necessitates clear boundaries. These boundaries allow a leader to distinguish between their own feelings and those of others. The leader is then able to be involved to a reasonable extent and not completely immersed in the problems of their staff.

Additionally, being overly empathetic can make people less accountable. People can also take advantage of the kindness of a leader and cross boundaries, manipulate, and never reciprocate. As a leader, you should exercise caution and not allow empathy to devolve into a one-sided, manipulative relationship controlled by the employee. Constantly cutting employees slack will undermine accountability. If you are a sensitive and kind leader, be wary of people who take advantage of these positive attributes. Melancholic personality types are vulnerable to people who take advantage of them and they can also get lost in their own emotions and those of others.

Empathy is an important attribute for a leader and an organization. Organizations that practice empathy will foster loyalty and productivity. Leaders who have high levels of emotional intelligence will make people feel understood and less alone when they encounter challenges in life. Empathy is both a skill and a trait. If you are not naturally empathetic and are wired differently, you can still cultivate this skill and add it to your leadership toolkit. Building teams and earning trust is no easy feat. You will have to take the time and exercise patience to develop genuine connections.

On the other hand, if you have this trait in spades, you may need to ensure people do not take advantage of your excessive ability to empathize.  There are many disadvantages of unchecked empathy. Without the skill and discipline to stand back, judge objectively and act accordingly, empathy can cloud your moral judgement and make you less effective at decision making. Too much empathy is an abdication of leadership responsibility. Strike a healthy balance by advocating for empathy as well as accountability within your organization.

Article by Shailja Sharma, Leadership and Career Coach, Faculty Member at SBS

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