27 May 2024

Leadership and Empathy

By Birsen Çevik Akgünlü

What is ‘Empathic Leadership’?

When we blend `empathy` with the concept of `leader`, we are talking about a manager’s ability to put themselves in their team member’s shoes and view events from that person’s perspective. To demonstrate this skill, we need to know our team member closely, both intellectually and emotionally. This involves understanding the motivation behind their situation or behavior correctly and reflecting our understanding back to them.

So, when we say empathetic leadership, we mean:

  • Establishing sincere dialogues with each team member
  • Caring about the feelings and thoughts of others
  • Trying to understand the other person’s world through their eyes without judgment
  • Acting with others in mind

In this way, we believe that we can build deep, inclusive, supportive, and productive teams.

Although we know the importance of empathy, why do we have difficulty in applying it?

If we want to incorporate more empathy into our leadership style, the first thing we need to do is identify the obstacles in our way.

  • Our ‘role models’

We learn leadership from the leaders who raised us. If we didn’t grow up under a leader who demonstrated empathy, it’s very normal to struggle with incorporating empathy into our own leadership style. We might even find it difficult to understand why empathy is necessary. After all, we have continued to produce and succeed for years without receiving empathy. If it weren’t for the endless troubles of the new generations, everything would be just like the old days.

Then came the pandemic, and with it Zoom/Teams. The team scattered like leaves in the wind, and we didn’t know how to bring them back together. We didn’t know because our routine was disrupted, and the ground beneath our feet shifted. Now, it is time to believe in the power of empathy and solidarity.

  • The level of empathy need

Individuals have varying levels of personal motivation needs. For example, everyone likes to be appreciated, but the level of this need varies from person to person. Some are more self-contained, and recognition from themselves or their close circle is enough for them. Others enjoy being in the spotlight because they need to feel the appreciation of the crowd. Neither of these preferences is better or more correct than the other; they are just different. Research shows that leaders who have a lower need for recognition tend to appreciate others less because they find it difficult to understand the recognition needs of others.

The need for empathy is similar. The level of this need varies from person to person. If your need for being approached with empathy is low, you may naturally struggle to understand teammates who have a high need for empathy. This is your reality and it should be respected. What is important is that you are aware of this and respect your team’s need for empathy. It is crucial to share this situation honestly with your team so that they know your door is open when they need support.

  • Busy work schedule

Sometimes, our focus on work can overshadow our focus on people. With tasks to complete, projects with looming deadlines, presentations to prepare, and endless meetings, we may find ourselves without time to check in on our team members. This creates a vicious cycle.

Work starts to come between us and our team. As we become more distant from the team, communication decreases. As communication decreases, work slows down and problem-solving gets delayed. Consequently, our workload increases even more. This cycle continues until we stop and break it.

As long as we are aware of these kinds of obstacles, there is nothing preventing us from developing our empathy skills.

There are 3 main actions we need to focus on:

  • Self-assessment of how well we know our team members. How much do I know about their current lives? Do I understand their passions and purpose?
  • Asking plenty of questions. What are the effects of changes at work or critical decisions on my team? What are their recent concerns? What are they excited about?
  • Active listening. Am I focusing on their words as well as their expressions, tone of voice, reactions, and emotions?

Can Too Much Empathy Be Harmful?

Yes, it can. While maintaining our focus on empathy, we need to be aware of two particular pitfalls.

  • The first is the risk of crossing the fine line between “empathizing” and “assuming.” Trying to show empathy by putting ourselves in someone else’s shoes does not mean we can fully understand their thoughts and feelings. A leader should not make assumptions on behalf of their team member, even if they believe they know them well. The leader’s focus should be on asking questions and actively listening to the answers.
  • The second pitfall is the risk of crossing the fine line between being an “empathetic leader” and a “protective parent.” While trying to support our team member, we must remember that they are adults, and we should avoid taking on a protective parental role. Every relationship between adults comes with certain responsibilities. A relationship built on empathy also includes mutual responsibilities.

In response to the leader’s efforts to understand and receive feedback, the team member should demonstrate openness and sincerity in expressing any issues they may have. Furthermore, being an empathy-focused leader does not mean solving all of the team’s problems personally. The leader’s responsibility is to provide guidance and coaching.

Who should show empathy to the leaders? 🙂
Let’s seek an answer to this question in the next article…

Birsen Çevik Akgünlü

Edited: 27 May 2024 ((Turkce orjinal versiyonuna buradan ulasabilirsiniz)

Visual: Gracia Lam