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Empathetic leadership: Importance and development

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When working towards a major goal at work, whether trying to bring in a big project on time or make the perfect sales pitch to a client, it helps to know leadership has your back, from your manager on up. Empathetic leaders understand what you’re trying to achieve and the difficulties you’ll have to overcome on the way. They provide team members with the psychological safety needed to reach for the stars, knowing that if they can’t quite make it this time, they have the support needed to make an even stronger effort next time.

Developing a culture of empathetic leadership should be a priority for all HR professionals, but knowing where to start isn’t easy. While some team members might be more naturally empathetic than others, it’s possible for everyone to display a more supportive, understanding mindset with the right guidance.

Why empathetic leadership is a game changer

Stress is a huge factor when it comes to success at work. If your organization’s employees feel anxious, unhappy, and tired – in short, if they’re experiencing burnout – they’re simply not able to give their all on a daily basis. And with great talent commanding an increasing premium, it’s not realistic to expect skilled workers to stay somewhere they don’t enjoy being.

While there are many ways to support employee wellness and combat burnout, one available to every organization is encouraging empathetic leadership. An employee’s manager has the biggest impact on their level of engagement, and recognition from leaders at the manager level and above means the most to team members. Teach your organization’s leadership why and how to steer clear of uncaring micromanagement in favor of acting as understanding coaches, and gratitude from employees isn’t likely to be far behind.

What empathy at work really means

Empathy is simply the ability to understand what another person is feeling, and maybe share a bit of that feeling yourself. It’s a great skill to have in almost every part of someone’s life, from navigating personal relationships to making new, genuine friendships.

Empathy at work means taking the time to listen, put yourself in another team member’s shoes, and respond with kindness and understanding rather than judgment. You can see it in action when a manager takes an actual interest in how they can help a direct report realize their career goals or when a peer steps up to assist a team member suffering from burnout. While empathy should be cultivated at every level of your organization, as with many key practices, from recognition to living company values, leaders must serve as examples for others to follow.

How to show and develop empathetic leadership

There are many ways leaders can work to make empathy a core part of their work identity. Here are a few of the best.

Practice listening, and act on feedback

The most basic requirement of empathy is listening. If leaders don’t pay attention to what employees are telling them – both verbally and nonverbally – they’re unable to develop the true understanding on which empathy is built.

Listening starts with being available, so leaders should incorporate regular sessions for back-and-forth conversations with their teams and individual team members. These meetings shouldn’t be so frequent as to interrupt anyone’s established workflow, but they should take place on a regular cadence that works for all parties. Encourage employees to provide honest feedback during these sessions and take the time to fully process whatever input they provide.

It’s no surprise that most employees are more likely to be honest when surveyed anonymously, rather than when talking directly to a manager, so organizations need to provide additional feedback channels to accommodate this reality. Don’t opt for an annual employee survey, though – by the time it’s been administered and the results analyzed, it’s likely that too much time will have passed for effective action. Instead, take advantage of modern employee engagement platforms that let you keep track of employee sentiments in real time through tools like intelligent HR chatbots and pulse surveys.

Show appreciation frequently

Letting employees know that you truly appreciate their contributions is a huge part of empathetic leadership. Unfortunately, at some organizations, recognition is something that occurs only rarely, at an annual performance review or when reaching a major milestone. If your manager only lets you know they care when you’ve achieved something significant, it only emphasizes the typical lack of appreciation.

To develop and demonstrate empathy, recognition should be given often, for daily wins and all the reasons you’re glad a team member is part of your company. Look for an employee recognition platform that makes providing both social and monetary recognition from anywhere with an internet connection simple and fun. Appreciation should also be personalized, referencing the specific behavior you’re recognizing. Not only does this demonstrate empathy, it makes the recipient more likely to repeat these positive actions again.

Create an environment of psychological safety

Empathetic leaders should strive to make employees feel comfortable being themselves and expressing their true feelings. Without this atmosphere of psychological safety, leaders will find it incredibly difficult to know and understand team members on a human level. There are many ways to support psychological safety at work. In addition to the recommendations above, these include demonstrating trust in employees, maintaining two-way communication with the aim of addressing team members’ needs, and making decisions collaboratively.

Support employee wellness

Empathetic leaders care about employees’ mental and physical wellness. They work to prevent burnout by staying in touch with how employees are really doing and implementing wellness initiatives that preserve work-life balance. These include encouraging mindfulness – while practicing it themselves – encouraging employees to use their paid time off, and offering team members’ the flexibility to fit their work schedules around the rest of their lives.

Supporting employee wellness goes hand in hand with listening to and addressing employee feedback. If team members express concerns about organizational culture, management, their workload, or other wellness factors, leaders need to take action quickly. If they don’t, other attempts at demonstrating empathy will fall flat.

Don’t limit empathy to work-related issues

If an empathetic attitude stops when team members bring up issues that aren’t directly related to work, they’ll recognize that it wasn’t genuine to begin with. Leaders should display the same level of care and understanding whether employees are discussing difficulties with the latest big project or an unexpected family medical issue. Employee wellness and performance are impacted by experiences both at home and at work, and empathetic leaders must recognize this reality.

Find the right tool to support empathetic leadership

Every company can make empathetic leadership a core part of its organizational culture, with the necessary support. HR professionals should train and educate leadership on the importance of empathy and how to show it. And they should adopt great HR tech that enables empathy across the workplace.

The Achievers Experience Platform is your organization’s way to support the development of empathy from the C-suite on down. With Achievers Listen, employees can easily make their voices heard at any time, providing HR and leaders with the insights they need to show true empathy while acting on critical issues impacting your company. And everyone can show that they understand and appreciate what their fellow team members bring to the table with the powerful recognition features of Achievers Recognize.

Achievers Employee Recognition Demo

Profile image of author: Aleksandra Masionis

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