Is Empathy the Strength of Your Leadership or Weakness? | The Leadership Secrets Series

Hey Siri, Okay Google, they sound familiar? 

In this day and age, where Artificial Intelligence is taking over a lot of the human work, our future seems to be more digital than human. Sounds scary or exciting?

When I ask this question to people, I see mixed reactions. One thing is for sure that it will still be people who empower technology to empower us and there will still be jobs for all the strategic work that needs to be put in for success. That's what makes empathy even more crucial today and in the future. 

You can pick up any old texts and scriptures from any region or religion in human history, this Empathy is one skill that has worked its magic in the most complicated and complex situations. Empathy has changed lives of many people. When I say "changed" - I really mean it.

I have a habit of breaking words down to understand what they really mean, what are those pieces that have come together to give birth to a new word. I did the same thing with the word - Empathy. As far as I understand, this is how it looks like:

Em + Pathy

Em = Emotional
Pathy = Denoting association with something (just like telepathy, neuropathy, naturopathy, etc.)
Empathy = Emotions or feelings associated with situations and people

Are you able to make some connections with the word?

As per Tom Rath, author of StrengthsFinder 2.0, having empathy doesn’t mean you “. . . share their perspective. It simply means you understand other's situations and contexts. Never confuse empathy with sympathy. They are two different stories.

Of course, you cannot expect Siri to understand your situation and give you solutions. it doesn't have a heart or even too much of a mind of its own. That kind of a world is still far ahead in the future.

In the context of leadership, is empathy a strength or a weakness?

Empathy as Strength: 

  • Leadership is Relational: If you have read other articles or blogs that I have written, you would have easily noticed the emphasis on the fact that leadership is relational. If there are leaders, then there are followers who make them leaders. Everyone is driven by certain interpersonal needs that drive their behaviors. Empathy is also one of those needs that makes us feel supported. Think of a leader that you might have come across, who lacks empathy. How do you feel around that person? Some feelings might be - exclusion, unsupported, micro-managed, etc. Now think of the leader that you might have experienced with empathy. How did you feel around that person? Exactly the opposite of the former - feeling wanted, a sense of belonging, feeling cared and valuable, feeling yourself and appreciated. The list can go on.
  • Human Connections that Spark for a Lifetime: As I worked in the retail industry as well, I noticed that the best sales people excelled in their jobs because of empathy. They sparked a human connection based on compassion and empathy by trying to genuinely understand the needs, objectives and situations of their customer and worked towards filling the gaps for them through products or services to the best they can. No wonder, they had repeat clients for life. You don't have to be a salesperson for practicing empathy. Think deeply, we all try to sell something to others all the time. We sell ideas, thoughts, practices, project pitches and what not. We develop relationships with our colleagues, teams, managers and even with people we don't regularly work with. These relationships have everything in them - conflicts, collaborations, decisions, negotiations, buying, selling and everything else that you can think of. We are interdependent beings. Therefore, it is pivotal to create conditions of empathy to be able to understand each other better and collectively strive for success. 
Remember, as times are changing, empathy is one of the foundational pieces that gives birth to innovation. The more we understand each other, the more we innovate to fulfill each other's needs and gaps. If every leader practices empathy, it can drive a strong people-focused culture and develop more innovative organizations. Whether you are coaching your staff or trying to get buy-in for your ideas or simply selling a product or service, empathy can take you to places that you had not imagined.

Empathy as Weakness: 

  • Giving and Taking: It is not all about giving but also receiving. Don't empty yourself out by just giving. You are also a human being and you need to replenish your own energy to be able to serve as and effective leader. Never put your needs at the back burner.  Make a conscious effort to understand your own needs first before you begin to help others. Would you like to learn more about yourself through an assessment to guide your thinking? Click here and choose a free assessment.
  • Striking a Balance: Empathy is a beautiful skill to harness till the time it doesn't overpower your emotions and hampers your other skills like decision making and negotiation, or make you ineffectively vulnerable. It is about staying mindful and striking a balance between the blacks, whites and the greys. The more you have your situation sensing radars strongly established in your environment, the better your will be able to practice empathy at the right place, at the right time and in a variety of situations and people.

How to genuinely demonstrate empathy as a leader?

  • Create a culture of openness, where people are not afraid to speak their minds - respectfully of course. 
  • Learn about people's stories - not just as professionals but as human beings. Be holistic and see the complete picture of a person. Even when you are hiring a new person in your team, ask questions to the candidates to know more about them as human beings. Learn about people's strengths and areas of development. Leverage this knowledge when you provide coaching to your employees or deal with situations related to your team, managers, colleagues or anyone else.
  • Allow people to be themselves. Respect the fact that everyone is unique in their own ways. Learn about their interpersonal needs and drives. Try your best to give them those conditions where they can strive for excellence.
  • During challenging times, raise you empathy levels. These include times of loss and grief, attrition, organizational changes, and literally changes of any kind - personal or professional. These are the times, when people require the greatest support. If you supported them reasonably well or not, you will be remembered for it and your relationship will be affected accordingly in the future. Challenging times can be stepping stones to great beginnings of relationships or the greatest disasters. 
  • Be more inclusive in your practices. Bring all voices on the table when brainstorming, making decisions and collaborating. Take a lunch with your team sometimes, pick their brains, seek their advice, ask for and provide feedback. Remember the feeling of exclusion and disrespect. If you don't like it yourself, then be sure that no one else does either.
  • Make an effort to know people who sit next to you, across you, on the other side of your office space and every other corner, and even your work partners in other countries. There are living stories around you that you must tap into and build a true people-focused culture. 
  • Reward Empathy: When you see empathetic behaviors around you - in your team, organization or even personal life, make sure you show gratitude or even reward people for their good behavior. Let empathy not go unnoticed!

"Relationships grounded in empathy and authenticity are fuel for effective leadership. Fill in your tanks and drive on your path to effective and influential leadership."

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Sahil Sharma
Talent, Learning & Leadership Development Professional | Certified Leadership Coach

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