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Empathetic leadership: sorely underrated?

Menai Owen-Jones, chief executive of The Pituitary Foundation, reflects on the importance of empathy.

A narrated version of this blog is available at the bottom of the page

“Stop moaning” were the words of one corporate leader in a staff meeting recently when talking about the impact of the pandemic and lockdown on people’s lives.

Hardly an empathetic response in the circumstances.

Why, even after a year where empathy, care and compassion, have been essential to get us through these darkest times in our living memory, do we still have too many instances of leaders lacking empathy? Does empathy in the workplace really matter though?

It’s time to end binary thinking that you can’t be strong and also empathetic

Empathy is defined as ‘the ability to understand and share the feelings of another.’ Empathy has traditionally been seen as a feminine quality in leadership, along with generosity, collaboration, vulnerability and humility. These qualities are still oft-overlooked and undervalued.

There is a continuing assumption that as a leader you cannot be assertive, strong, and also at the same time, be empathetic and compassionate. You only have to look at leaders like Jacinda Ardern, the prime minister of New Zealand, whose decisive yet empathetic leadership throughout the pandemic wholly disproves this notion. 

It’s time to end binary thinking that you cannot be both a strong and empathetic leader. It’s time to join up the genders so that empathy is seen as a shared quality, regardless of gender, which will strengthen our organisations and help make them more equitable into the future. 

Why does empathy matter in the workplace?

We’ve all had those conversations when someone asks “How are you?” and you know they’re not particularly interested in knowing the answer.

We’ve all been in meetings where it’s all ‘business talk’, and there is no engagement with you as a person. We’ve all also experienced meetings where someone else doesn’t seem to understand your role, the work you do or your workload.  They don’t know where you are coming from. How does this make you feel?

We all want to be seen, heard and listened to. We connect with people who we feel understand us; I know that I do. We work better with people who empathise with us.

Evidence is widely available to show that working in an empathetic culture is important to how happy we are at work, how engaged and motivated we feel and ultimately, how productive we are in our roles.

The power of leading with empathy and connection

Empathy in the workplace is role modelled by leaders. Leadership is based on relationships and connections, and critical to this is empathy.

Leaders who lead with empathy make time to get to know their team members, as individuals and also collectively.  They develop their understanding of others by asking open questions and active listening.

Leading with empathy is powerful.  It helps to build trusting relationships. When you have a culture of trust, it supports psychological safety, encourages honesty and constructive challenge, elements that support the creation of high-performing teams.  

Leaders who connect with their employees bring out the best in employees and are also better able to understand reasons for poor performance or why someone may be struggling and help them improve.

Empathy too supports the creation of a positive, diverse and inclusive organisation, where everyone feels seen, listened to and respected.

At a time when we all as leaders across sectors need to be proactively driving change to create more diverse, equal and inclusive workplaces, then encouraging empathy as a collective value is important.

Empathy has a chain reaction

In my experience as chief executive of The Pituitary Foundation for the past ten years, I believe that leading with empathy has been a catalyst to many things, including creating a positive culture across the charity; staff satisfaction and retention; productivity; financial performance; quality of services and ultimately the effectiveness of the impact of our work supporting people affected by pituitary conditions.

Empathy, I believe, helps to create a common unifying direction. It runs throughout the charity in everything we do and how we work, whether someone speaks to one of our helpline operators, is receiving support from our nurse service or contacts us about a fundraising event. 

The heart-warming, valued and generous support we have seen from charity members and supporters, particularly over the past year, exemplifies our culture of values, including empathy. 

Opportunity to realise the power of empathy

Empathy is a skill and can be learned and developed by anyone.

You don’t need big budgets to lead with empathy or to work in an empathetic way.  Why not start by talking about empathy in your workplace? This way, people know it matters. Talking also breaks down barriers and encourages engagement. 

What about identifying leaders and team members in your organisations who are your connectors already? Or organising for you, or team members, to experience a day in the life of a colleague from another team, or encouraging colleagues to share their stories?   

As we know, ultimately modelling behaviours as a leader is the most effective way of influencing their adoption by others.

There is a distance to go to shift the perception that leading with empathy is a weakness. It is not. In fact, it is a valuable strength.  You can be both strong and empathetic at the same time. It is not an either-or.

Now is our real opportunity to change this outdated perception of empathy as we take forward the lessons we have learned from the past year to build towards a fairer future post-pandemic.

Empathy in the workplace has been underrated for far too long. Empathy matters.

Narrated by a member of the ACEVO staff

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