Pioneers of the 21st Century: New generations Leading with Empathy

There are so many changes in the 21st century workplace which will continue to occur even as the world evolves. While these changes occur, the leadership skills needed to thrive in this digital age remain unchanged. One might say the concepts stay the same, although the applications have changed. Of all the important unique skills and qualities that every 21st century leader must possess, the capacity to show empathy is a characteristic that is frequently disregarded and undervalued. The current condition of the workplace is really exhausting, disheartening, and unpleasant for many employees and as a leader, they look up to you to understand them, put yourself in their shoes, foster a healthy environment, motivate and inspire them. As Zig Ziglar said, you do not build businesses; you build people, and people build businesses. 

You do not build businesses; you build people and people build businesses

-Zig Ziglar 

Have you ever found yourself crying after hearing about a friend’s terrible situation? Or felt giddy with joy upon learning that someone you cared about had something wonderful happen to them? That quality is referred to as empathy. Empathy is the ability to understand the thoughts, feelings, and perspectives of other people, as well as the ability to use that understanding to direct our actions and assist those people. To be an empathetic leader, you need to go beyond just pretending to listen but actually listening and aiming to understand things from their perspective with a willingness to help. It is very important to understand that sympathy is not empathy. When you are sympathetic, you feel sorry for others and keep a healthy emotional, mental and physical distance from their thoughts or experiences. Whereas, empathy is more of the ability to deeply comprehend, relate to, or picture the circumstances or emotional state of another person. In essence, in contrast to feeling sorry for someone, you are actually feeling with them.

What about you personally? Do you treat yourself with the same consideration and kindness that you would give to a close friend? When you are going through a difficult time or when you become aware of something about yourself that you don’t like, do you give yourself comfort and care? We use compassion for ourselves as a means of relating to ourselves, warmly accepting ourselves in the present moment as we are. The question now is, how can we develop both self- compassion and empathy? According to human brain plasticity research, we have the ability to train our brains in the same way that we train our bodies. When we transform our minds, we improve not only our own well-being but also that of those who are in our immediate environment.

Most people believe that empathy is a weakness or a trait people are born with. It should however, be noted that empathy is not a display of weakness nor a show of strength, but being conscious of our everyday behaviour and how it influences those around us. This is why everyone, not only the C-suite, lower levels or selected individuals should be required to participate in leadership mentorship, coaching, and training to develop these skills. As an organization, now is the time to invest in this training and coaching program to teach your leaders empathy. Below are 3 powerful tips on how to be an empathetic Leader.

  1. Don’t just listen, truly listen: Empathetic leaders do not just listen but listen without interrupting to understand another person’s perspective. It is important not to interrupt other people and to make it a habit to let them finish what they are saying. It is also important to respect the fact that other people have thoughts that they are processing and talking about, and to wait to ask questions or make comments until after they have completed what they are saying. It is equally as important to listen to other people as it is to show them that you are listening to them. One way to do this is to summarize and paraphrase what was said to us in order to show that we heard. Listening actively demonstrates that you are interested in the conversation and you desire to hear everything the other person has to say to the extent that the speaker does not feel rushed and you do not appear to be in a hurry.
  2. Be mindful of your body language: When you engage in conversations with other people, you are constantly sending and receiving nonverbal cues from one another. It’s possible that empathy can be conveyed not only through words but also through our bodies, particularly our faces, which do the majority of the talking for us when we are having conversations with other people. When we communicate with other people, it is essential that we pay attention to what our bodies are expressing and check to see if it is consistent with what we are saying. According to some studies, we are even able to determine a person’s level of intelligence simply by observing their facial expressions and features. If we want other people to contribute their ideas to our project, we should not be multitasking at the same time as they are speaking! We should not give in to the temptation of checking our phones or looking around to see how the other participants are responding. Instead, we should direct our attention to the people who are currently expressing themselves by turning our heads and torsos to face them directly and making direct eye contact with them. Leaning forward is another nonverbal indicator that we are engaged in the conversation and paying attention to it. 
  3. Be open to others and accept that not everyone is like you: Leaders who have a high level of empathy demonstrate strong abilities to be open to others and accept that others are different with strengths and limitations, just like any other human being. Leaders also accept that they themselves have weaknesses that they cannot always rely on. If we have a hard time accepting other people’s flaws, we need to examine why a certain behaviour bothers us, and whether or not it is actually problematic or we are just projecting our own anxieties onto it. For instance, we often have very high standards for what we expect from other people. However, if we adjust our expectations to be more in line with reality, we can actually improve the overall quality of our lives as well as our level of career satisfaction.

Some Leaders are more empathetic in nature than others however with the right training and coaching, they will grow to improve their empathy skills. If you are able to demonstrate empathy as a leader, your team will feel safe around you and be open to share ideas which can boost their performance.