Stress, burnout, and mental health concerns permeate workplaces today. In the post-pandemic era, many people are struggling to define what kind of job and setting — virtual, in person, or hybrid — makes the most sense for them. Though global workplace policies remain in flux, many bosses continue to be accommodating and are showing greater empathy for other team members’ needs.
At this crucial turning point, we need empathic leaders with innovative management styles to motivate teams and provide regular moments of connection and caring, as well as global leaders who can help create a more loving, unified, and cooperative world. Oprah Winfrey says, “Leadership is all about empathy. It’s all about the ability to connect with people for the purpose of inspiring and empowering their lives.”
An empathetic leadership style values integrity and relating to others to understand their point of view. Empathic leaders take a genuine interest in team members. They want to know what makes them tick, what inspires them, and how they feel. They nurture their team’s talents and strengths while using appreciation and positive reinforcement to encourage excellence.
For example, when an empathic leader sees a team member faltering, they don’t crank up the pressure to perform or use criticism to motivate. Nor do they lead with impatience, which only makes people freeze or panic. Instead, they begin with appreciation for the person’s contributions to the team. Then, in a caring tone, they address any diﬃculties they are encountering and explore strategies together to reach their goal. Approaching a team member with empathy rather than impatience does not make leaders pushovers, weak, or unable to set boundaries. Rather, they incorporate strength and empathy to lead.
Once when I was working on a project that required a series of meetings, I had to reschedule one date because a family member was having surgery the next day. I apologized to the project manager (who organized the schedule) for the change and any inconvenience it might have caused the team. Despite my efforts, he responded with no emotion in his voice, “Rescheduling would put the team back too far. It is best if you just go ahead with the meeting.” I was stunned at what felt like a chilling response. True, I gave late notice because I had wrongly calculated my emotional bandwidth to both support my relative and be at the meeting. Still, canceling is not a pattern for me, but I was given no wiggle room. In the end I did attend, but honestly it didn’t feel great having my needs dismissed. Still, I didn’t raise this with the manager since I wanted to focus on my relative and avoid a confrontation.
My message is that having more empathy for colleagues and team members can only help leaders. For instance, the project manager might have graciously led with, “Judith, I didn’t realize that a family member was having surgery. We’ll all be holding good thoughts for them. I will do everything possible to reschedule the meeting.”
In the workplace, a little kindness goes a long way and creates goodwill. Sometimes we need to cut a coworker some slack even if it inconveniences us. When we do, they will remember the kindness, and it will bring the team closer together.
However, many employees may be understandably afraid to directly express their needs, especially with a nonempathic boss. So they hold in their anger, shame, or frustration, which creates tension in their bodies and in the workplace via emotional contagion.
Still, it’s important to be discerning. If you are dealing with someone who is ordinarily caring, expressing yourself in a respectful, non-blaming way can be productive. Alternatively, if you have a boss with an empathy deficient disorder who may not value your needs, your effort may have no impact at all or it may antagonize them. In this situation, “managing up” may mean having realistic expectations of your boss so you don’t keep expecting more than they can give.
I’m delighted that such a wide range of leaders have stressed the importance of empathy. These include Rosalind Brewer, CEO of Walgreens, former Supreme Court Justice Ruth Bader Ginsberg, and former U.S. presidents Barack Obama and Theodore Roosevelt, who once said, “No one cares how much you know until they know how much you care.” Business leaders such as Sir Richard Branson also endorse empathy as does Mark Divine, a former Navy SEAL who writes about the power of leading from your heart.
Five traits of empathetic leaders:
- Lead by example.
Empathetic leaders are role models for empathy and collaboration. They let team members know, “I care about your concerns and values. Let’s work this through together.”
- Have emotional intelligence.
They think outside the box and encourage others’ creative ideas. During a conflict, they stay centered and combine logic and empathy to resolve the issue. They feel for others’ dilemmas, but they can identify and control their emotions.
- Listen to their intuition.
They trust their gut in decision-making and support their team in doing so too.
- Show appreciation.
They let others know that they value their time, work, and contributions.
- Are flexible.
They quickly read others’ needs and emotions and can adapt to a new or changing situation without becoming rigid or critical. These are vital qualities for crisis management.
Written by Judith Orloff.
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