Some of the most admired business leaders — Gary Vaynerchuk, Simon Sinek, and Oprah Winfrey — attribute one soft skill as fundamental to their success: Empathy.
And now, their anecdotal experience has been backed up by science. According to a recent study, empathy is no longer a “nice to have” for leaders; it’s a strategic imperative.
New research from Catalyst suggests that empathy is a force for innovation, flourishing, and intent to stay. And in the time of an ongoing global pandemic, racial inequities, increasing divisiveness, and the “Great Resignation,” companies whose leaders embrace empathy have a decided edge.
What is empathy?
It’s helpful to define what empathy is — and is not. This soft skill is often misunderstood and confused with its cousin, sympathy, which is feeling compassion for somebody. But empathy is about putting yourself in someone else’s shoes and seeing things from their perspective.
In their research, Catalyst defines empathy as “the skill of connecting with others to identify and understand their thoughts, perspectives, and emotions; and demonstrating that understanding with intention, care, and concern.
They also describe an empathic leader as “a leader who demonstrates care, concern, and understanding for employees’ life circumstances.”
The benefits of empathic leadership
A culture of empathy helps bond colleagues together and forms the foundation of a resilient and inclusive workplace. Here are the specific benefits the study found were linked with empathic leadership:
Boosted productivity, innovation, and engagement
When productivity plummets, so does business success. But an employee’s ability to innovate — to generate new ideas, processes, and approaches to achieving goals — and engage with their work fuels their productivity, which is enhanced by empathic leadership.
Most notably, the study found 61% and 76% of people with highly empathic senior leaders report often or always being innovative and engaged at work, respectively, compared to only 13% and 32% of people with less empathic senior leaders.
The prolonged uncertainty and stress of COVID pushed many people to their limits. Women, especially, bore the brunt of job loss, schooling, and caretaking, yet the study showed that women who had highly empathic leaders experienced less COVID-related burnout (54%) than women with less empathic leaders (63%).
Employees feel their life circumstances are respected and valued
Everyone wants to feel seen, heard, and respected for who they are. Demonstrating empathy at work signals to your team that their perspectives and experiences matter. In fact, 86% of respondents with high senior leader empathy felt their life circumstances were being respected and valued compared to just 45% of those with low senior leader empathy.
Work-life needs are supported
Balancing work and life needs has become increasingly challenging for employees over the last couple of years, particularly with the rise in remote working and the blurring lines between personal and professional. However, the study shows that when employees feel their leaders are more empathic, 86% report being able to balance their work, family, and personal obligations.
Fosters inclusive employee experiences
Senior leader empathy has a significant effect on inclusion, with 50% of respondents reporting that they often or always experience inclusion at work versus 17% of people who have less empathic leadership.
Predicts lower intent to leave
Empathic senior leaders have more influence than they might believe. When leaders invest in creating a supportive and inclusive work environment, employees, in turn, are likely to invest in the organization. Specifically, the study found that only 18% of women of color with highly empathic senior leaders are thinking about leaving their organization, compared to 33% of women of color with less empathic senior leaders.
How leaders can demonstrate empathy
Catalyst’s findings underscore that empathy is essential to success in the future of work. But saying you’re empathic isn’t enough; leaders must demonstrate their empathy through their words, actions, behaviors, and decisions. Here are a few ways how:
Practice putting others first
Asking your team members, “Is everything okay?” is a great start but also make it a priority to get to know them as whole people, not just your employees.
Create a safe space for sharing
People may be reluctant to open up if they feel they’ll be judged or criticized, so give an employee the space and grace to share.
Don’t assume others know how you feel
Regularly remind your team members that you care about them, understand their challenges, and want to help.
Listen more and talk less
When you’re listening to someone, resist the urge to multitask or interrupt. Instead, give others your full and undivided attention so you can truly listen to what matters most to them and ask follow-up questions to make sure you understand. Add to that an open-mindedness to considering differing points of view, and you’ll make others feel valued and heard.
Remember, as a leader, you set the tone for workplace culture and have the power to drive policy development and strategies, so be intentional with your words and actions. By choosing to lead with empathy, you’ll foster a more productive, innovative, and inclusive environment where people feel valued.