There's Power In Being An Empathetic Leader
While it isn’t a new concept, empathy has not always been a priority in the workplace, and in some organizations it may be completely overlooked. In a recent Businessolver survey, fewer than half of employees rated their companies in general as empathetic. The absence of empathy can create problems with overall employee satisfaction, but armed with the right tools, mindset, and perspective, leaders can work to change the culture from within.
“The role of a CEO is not always about command and control. The primary role is having the capacity to influence, and then change and mobilize people. Without empathy, a leader cannot demonstrate authentic diplomatic skills. You cannot run a global company without empathy,” said Andrea Jung, President and Chief Executive Officer of Grameen America, the fastest-growing microfinance organization in the United States.
Prior to her role at Grameen America, Jung served as the Chairman and Chief Executive Officer of Avon and is the longest-serving female Chief Executive Officer of a Fortune 500 company.
Grameen America provides microloans, training, and support to underserved women entrepreneurs in poverty who are seeking to launch or expand a small business. Jung has led with empathy throughout her career, and understands the importance of this approach to her leadership style.
Empathy in the Workplace
In an organizational context, empathy can be defined as having the sensibility and insight to understand the perspective of your employees, colleagues, and even your manager. The most important factor in striving towards empathy is the willingness to be open to discussion. An empathetic leader who tasked with a difficult situation provides space for debate and questions the status quo. Empathy in the workplace encourages a culture of openness to understand another person’s experience and positions all employees to follow suit.
“An organization’s culture and practices run deep but there's always a softer side. This does not mean that as a leader you have to be a weak negotiator. It does mean that you have to attempt to understand where others are coming from to bridge the gap,” said Jung.
If empathy is not a core competency for a leader, their ability to understand the differences between their staff and their experiences cannot happen, clarifies Jung. Building empathy is an exercise in striving to understand your audience.
“It’s important to ask yourself: Do you understand exactly who your constituent is? You also have to take the time to understand, what is a day in their life? What is their goal? What are their challenges? And then, you build around that.”
Some leaders may find practicing empathy in their personal lives is innate, but in the workplace see empathy as challenging to implement. According to Jung, being an empathetic leader starts with adopting clear communication with your staff even when the outcome could be confronting.
“One of the best things that you can do as a leader is take a listening tour. Before you form your own opinions, you must hear people out, whether that be in the form of town halls, engagement surveys or employee councils,” said Jung.
As a CEO, Jung mentions that employees tend to think that leaders only want to hear the most positive updates, but that is not always the case. When having meetings with employees on projects or objectives, Jung makes a point to obtain the complete spectrum of feedback.
“As a leader, to be able to fully gauge a situation you need to be able to understand both the positive and negative factors, as well as the nuances. It’s important to recognize that you can’t understand the big picture if you don’t know the whole story,” said Jung. “When I engage with my staff, I really want to know the bad and the ugly and I ask them, ‘Tell me what's not working. Tell me your frustrations.’"
Jung explains that the answers to these questions does not mean that everything will change. Instead, “a leader who is making decisions based off accurate perspectives will lead to the best course of action for the success of the employees, and the business as a whole. It is about making sure you are being authentically empathic without being overly sympathizing.”
Jung believes empathy is a two-way street. “While it’s important for a leader to be empathetic towards their employees, this level of consideration is also important for employees to practice with their managers and leaders.”
Finding the Balance Between Empathy and Making the Right Decisions
In many organizations, being an empathetic leader could been seen as a weakness. How can you be truly empathetic when tasked with making the tough decisions? What if these decisions negatively affect your employees?
In these situations, should we lean more towards being empathetic or firmer in our decisions because that’s what the business requires? The answer is to find a healthy balance that supports both the employees and the business. Jung explains that while this difficult, to successfully achieve this balance is “the alchemy of being a leader.”
“The quality of the big decisions comes back to having the understanding to make the right judgement calls, the experience to back up the decisions you’re making, the courage to make the difficult decisions all leaders must make, and finally to bring an empathetic approach to the forefront when decision-making.” For Jung, these are the four pillars of empathetic leadership.
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