Empathy is defined as the action of understanding, being aware of, being sensitive to, and vicariously experiencing the feelings, thoughts, and experience of another of either the past or present without having the feelings, thoughts, and experience fully communicated in an objectively explicit manner.
That’s a mouthful.
For some, it connotes a purely emotional response. But in truth, empathy is an important skill for being a successful leader.
[Related: How Kindness in Business Pays Off for Leaders]
Why empathy is important
Fast Company had an article last year entitled “5 Reasons Empathy Is the Most Important Leadership Skill.” To paraphrase:
- It begets loyalty in your employees
- Your staff is more engaged
- Employees work better with each other
- Employers are happier
- Your staff is more creative
In other words, there’s a strong connection between empathy and employee job performance. And this, of course, translates into success for your business.
[Related: Lead Like a Woman: 9 Qualities to Drive Your Success as an Entrepreneur]
It seems to me that some people have a natural ability to be empathetic. For others, it’s a skill that must be developed. According to a white paper on Empathy in the Workplace: A Tool for Effective Leadership, empathy can be learned by:
- Talking about empathy and letting employees know that it matters
- Teaching listening skills, which are the underpinning of empathy. For example, you have to hear the meaning behind what’s being said in order to be empathetic.
- Encouraging employees to view something (a suggestion, a proposal) from someone else’s perspective).
- You can find resources on empathy at the Emotional Intelligence Consortium.
[Related: Why You Should Seek Out Emotional Intelligence When Hiring Employees]
The case against empathy
It should be noted that there are some who suggest empathy leads to poor decisions. For example, a Yale professor says empathy distorts judgment.
My view on empathy is that it is no less essential than any other leadership trait. Empathy can’t be used to the exclusion of rational thought. But excluding empathy from your leadership basket of skills would be a serious error.
Maya Angelou said: “I think we all have empathy. We may not have enough courage to display it.”
Barbara Weltman is the founder of Big Ideas for Small Business, Inc., which publishes Idea of the Day. She is the author of J.K. Lasser’s Small Business Taxes 2019 and other books that inform the small business community of tax, financial, and legal information they should know about.