Industry Insights

The Rise of the Empathetic Leader

Posted by John Wills on Oct 17, 2022 10:15:00 AM

Leading through turbulent times is a tough task for even the most experienced leaders. With the effects of the pandemic raging on, organizations tightening their purse strings, and many planning a future with shrinking budgets – leaders across the globe are facing tough times right now. But behind these leaders are swarms of employees who are also feeling the impacts of the turbulent world we’re living in. Now, more than ever before, those employees are looking to their managers and senior executives for guidance, support and comfort. So, it’s little surprise that empathy is quickly becoming the most important quality for leaders to have. 

What is an empathetic leader?

To truly understand what it is to be an empathetic leader, we must first understand what empathy is: 

“Empathy is the ability to share someone else's feelings or experiences by imagining what it would be like to be in that person's situation” - Cambridge Dictionary.

And it’s important to note the critical point here: a person with empathy is unlikely to have any lived experience of the other individual's thoughts, feelings, emotions or experiences – but still has the ability to share and consider these throughout communications. And for this reason, empathy is tough to teach, and difficult for many leaders to grasp. 

An empathetic leader understands that their personal thoughts, beliefs and opinions aren’t universally true, and has a growth mindset that encourages them to seek ideas from peers, colleagues and their team. In fact, in our Transformative Leadership report, Jean-Michel Chopin commented that the key to empathy is trust and transparency. “What we go through with our participants, is that if they show vulnerability, if they share things about themselves, even things they don't like, then they will actually be perceived as a stronger leader.” Lowering a leader’s guard may let them show their weaknesses, but in doing so it creates empathy through trust and transparency.

Why do we want empathetic leaders?

It’s no secret that organizations worldwide are facing the impacts of The Great Resignation, the Skills Gap Crisis, Remote Working and Remote Worker Fatigue. Within businesses there are hundreds, if not thousands, of individuals all with their own thoughts, feelings and emotions whirring around their minds. These emotions have a knock-on effect on their working day – and demand tactfulness from leaders.

Empathetic leadership will help tackle The Great Resignation 

The Great Resignation – which coincided with the Covid-19 pandemic – caused real unrest among the workforce. Of those people that quit their jobs in 2021, 57% said it was due to feeling disrespected at work and 48% said it was due to childcare issues. There is no doubt that Covid-19 accelerated the onslaught of resignations, with people trying to maintain the level of flexibility they’d become accustomed to during the pandemic. 

However, it’s clear how empathetic leadership could help combat some of these problems. For example, if you work in an organization that has mandated a return to the office for part of the week, but you have an employee who has childcare issues, this might have an impact on their work. They may seem detached and less enthusiastic than they were previously. A leader without empathy may be frustrated and give the employee a warning about their performance. Whereas an empathetic leader will put themselves in their employee’s shoes, try to decipher what the issue is, and work with them to formulate a solution. 

Using empathy to deal with hybrid working 

Managing a hybrid team is testing. Instead of being able to see their teams at all times, leaders have to trust that their employees are getting on with the job at hand and making good progress. So, it’s no surprise that many leaders fall into the micromanagement trap. But those who can trust employees, and be empathetic with their working from home environment, highlight themselves as future leaders of the organization – those that will help accelerate the business forward. 

Empathetic leaders will intentionally support their hybrid employees in any way they can. For example, checking that their working from home setup is adequate, or that they can switch off effectively at the end of the working day. These leaders will know that hybrid work isn’t necessarily easy, and sometimes distractions and interruptions can play their part, so leading with empathy and trust is a must. 

Empathizing with burnt-out employees

Now more than ever before, employees are reporting an increase in fatigue and burnout, and they are looking to leaders for support and guidance through these difficult times. It’s safe to say, the organizations that will weather the storm of the current workplace crisis will be those with leaders who are truly empathetic and can help businesses retain top talent. 

Burnout doesn’t mean your employee isn’t a great team member and a rising star of your organization. It simply means that something is out of balance right now. And rather than writing them off or ignoring their needs, empathetic leaders will lean into the challenges these individuals are facing. They will work with their team to elevate any problems they can, and give them the space to recover from burnout and continue to add value to the organization. 

Empathetic leaders are a must for future-proofed businesses 

The truth is, the aftermath of the pandemic, The Great Resignation and the Skills Gap crisis will continue for years to come. 2020 saw the biggest shake up of the workplace in recent history, and it’ll take many years for us to settle into a new normal. So, leaders with empathy will be the lynchpin of your employee growth, happiness and future development. 

To learn how to lead the future workforce, check out our Transformative Leadership report, here.  

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