Empathy in leadership: can it be developed?

Angry womanHeather, the boss storms out of the department, slamming the door behind her. She is grouchy from lack of sleep, being kept awake by her youngest who is ill. ‘Bloody staff’, she muttered to herself, ‘why can’t they do what they are told’ .

Lisa stands, red-faced and humiliated. She has just had a ticking off from her boss. Her report was late. Her mind was elsewhere as she has just split up from her long-term partner. She had requested a couple of days off to sort herself out but Heather  said no as they are too busy.

How many of you are familiar with such stories and perhaps have been in the position of Heather or Lisa?

How different would this scenario be if Heather showed some empathy towards Lisa? A simple conversation around why the report was late might have given her some insight into how Lisa was feeling and how this is affecting her performance.

If Heather was aware of her own emotions and the affect on this her behaviour and on others, a different scenario may have been being played out.     

NetworkerEmpathy is who we are in our connection to each other. If there is little connection there, our relationships, mood, feelings, emotions are not taken into account. Without any connectedness, there is no insight, understanding of each other’s world and perspectives. There is no openness, trust or vulnerability. There is no sense that you know me as a person. As someone who has dreams, ambitions, hopes, concerns, feelings…There is only the sense that I work for ‘you’, the ‘organisation’ and that I am here only to produce results. How many of you have felt like that?

Empathy is a key part of emotional intelligence and is fundamental to effective leadership. It is the ability to manage and share your emotions and to vicariously understand other people’s feelings and perspectives, and to use that insight to guide your behaviour and actions.

How can you become more empathetic ?

1. Be in tune with your emotions

You cannot manage your emotions if you are not aware of them. Until you are able to do this, it will be a challenge to understand the actions of others which are largely driven by emotions. 

Managing your emotions is about accepting that they exist and dealing with them. To do that requires self-awareness. Emotions carry a message about something that is happening now or that has happened in the past and is unresolved. How we think, affects how we feel and this in turns affects our behaviour. Next time you experience an emotion, notice it and ask yourself ‘what is this feeling trying to tell me?’

Learn to recognise triggers and if you feel yourself getting too upset or angry, take a few seconds time out to THINK about whatever is happening and what might have led to that feeling and deal with it

2. Be curious  

curiousCast your mind back to your childhood and how inquisitive you were? Or if you have children, the endless questions that they ask?

Be brave and take that up again. Strike up conversations with people that you hardly ever speak to. Or even better that you don’t know!

Get an insight into their world and their perspectives. You would be amazed at what you can learn from being open to learning about other people’s cultures, background and worldviews.

Curiosity opens the mind to new ideas and to things that would probably escape your everyday attention.

Have you noticed that people who rarely stray from their circles or networks are those who have the least interesting stories to tell and are usually quite boring!

 3. Be in the moment and listen with intent

Listening is different to hearing – it suggests that you are paying attention, are interested and want to understand what is being said. To listen well, put your thoughts aside and focus on what is being said. Most importantly, try not to think about what you are going to say in response. This is what most people tend to do!

Come to the conversation with an empty mind, putting aside your own preconceptions, judgement and assumptions. A good listener will not interrupt and only asks questions for clarification.

Be receptive to the emotions and feelings and pay attention to non verbal signals.

Next time you are in a conversation, notice how much time you spend listening.

4. Build connections

Giving time and attention to others fosters empathy. Get to know your staff by spending time with them – a conversation over a coffee in the canteen, lunch in the nearby café… Get to know them on an emotional level.

Positive emotions are infectious and these in turn affect culture and the climate of the organisation. You are in a prime position to influence the emotional climate by being attune to the people you lead and responding to their concerns and needs in a way that takes into account their feelings and perspectives.

How are you developing your empathy? What tips can you share?

 Images courtesy of FreeDigitalPhotos.net

Vera in 2012I am a professional coach (MA in Coaching & Mentoring) working with women and aspiring leaders to build their confidence and know how to progress, make successful changes, leverage their influence, impact, presence and communication. I am a part-time lecturer in leadership and work within organisations to develop high performing teams, mentoring schemes and facilitate skills training in leadership and management development.


About verawoodhead

I'm an executive coach, leadership facilitator and learning & development consultant working with managers and leaders to develop the skills and behaviours to inspire performance and drive results; achieve promotion ; make successful career changes, be resilient and thrive at work. Within organisations, I help to facilitate better conversations, design learning interventions which deliver practical and lasting solutions aligned to business strategy and goals. Connect with me on Twitter @verawoodhead
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3 Responses to Empathy in leadership: can it be developed?

  1. Jamie says:

    What a great post, Vera! Your suggestions are terrific. I’ll just add one humorous tip that helped a client of mine to manage difficult emotions. We now have a saying, “Don’t get emotional – go to the bathroom!” Taking a break in the bathroom helps her to have the time and space to focus on the suggestions you give. It’s doing this in-the-moment that is most challenging so taking a time out, however you want to manage that, can be a huge help.

  2. Pingback: Empathy in leadership: can it be developed? | VeraWoodhead | Change By Design Coaching

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