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Can You Teach Empathy?

September 01, 2022 Learning and Development
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By Sarah Fister Gale

If your company wants to create an inclusive culture, reduce attrition, inspire innovation, and/or make employees feel engaged, there is one simple solution — hire empathetic leaders.

A 2021 report from Catalyst found that empathetic leaders aren’t just nice people to have around. They create measurable business benefits that align with the goals of nearly every business leader in the post-COVID-19 world.

The study found empathetic leaders:

  • Drive innovation: 61% of people with highly empathic senior leaders said they were innovative at work (compared to 13% of people with less empathic senior leaders).
  • Inspire engagement: 76% of people with highly empathic senior leaders reported feeling engaged, while just 32% of people with less empathic senior leaders feel that way.
  • Make employees feel valued: 80% of women of color and 93% of white women with highly empathetic leaders feel valued and respected, vs. roughly 40% of those with less empathetic leaders.

Employees with highly empathetic leaders and managers also reported less burnout and better work-life balance, and said they were less likely to think about quitting.

“When you look at what's happening in the workplace right now, it's abundantly clear how important empathy is to being a strong leader,” said Jennifer Dulski, CEO, and founder of Rising Team, a leadership development organization. “Employees want to feel a sense of belonging, and they want to know that they and their teammates are trusted and cared for. Those are all things for which empathy is critically required.”

Can Empathy Be Taught?

The interest in workplace empathy is relatively new, leaving seasoned leadership teams playing catch-up. After all, a good number of leaders who were hired before the pandemic were likely selected with little thought given to their ability to show compassion. And for those who had the ability to be empathetic, old-style management strategies probably caused them to bury those impulses.

“Authority and hierarchy is so embedded in how we think about leadership,” said Chuck Wisner, author of "The Art of Conscious Conversations" and a leadership advisor. “Overcoming that will take a fair amount of effort.”

The good news is that empathy can be taught — to most people. “Empathy and compassion come naturally to some people, but for others it takes a little work,” Dulski said.

The key is building it into leadership development training, said Cheryl Fields Tyler, CEO and founder of management consulting firm Blue Beyond. Empathy has never been a formal part of leadership development, and this has created a gap in their skill set.

“Most leaders will say they are empathetic, but empathy isn’t just having the feelings, it’s knowing what to do with them,” said Fields Tyler.

Truly empathetic leaders use their insight, power and communication skills to eliminate bullying, create safe spaces and inspire others to operate from a place of empathy. It’s not as easy as it sounds.

Related Article: What It Means to Be a Human Leader, and Why It's Important Today

Bite Your Tongue

Translating empathetic feelings to actual work interactions requires guidance and coaching, Fields Tyler said. At Blue Beyond, her team helps leaders build empathy skills through storytelling. For example, they encourage leaders to ask team members to share how a noteworthy positive or negative event from their youth shaped who they became. “It's very hard to hate someone once you know their story,” Fields Tyler said. She regularly sees senior leaders tearing up over the stories people share.

She believes it’s also important to learn how to shut up and listen, which can be a tough skill for leaders to embrace. “Most feel like their job is to make decisions and give commands, so it is challenging to know how to listen in ways that move the conversation forward,” she said.

To do that leaders need to be taught how to create a culture of psychological safety where their people feel comfortable disagreeing with them, sharing their ideas and speaking up.

“It starts with asking questions,” Wisner said. “Because once a leader shares their idea or perspective on a problem, it is perceived as a decision, and the conversation ends.”

It takes practice for leaders to hold back their opinions and to instead ask open-ended questions that inspire others to share their points of view. “Asking questions makes room for new ideas to emerge and reveals what knowledge your team has — or doesn’t have,” Wisner said.

Related Article: We Can’t Keep Blaming Technology for a Lack of Leadership Empathy

Empathy Training

Soft skills, such as empathy, are best taught through a combination of coaching and facilitated guidance within the team environment. Conventional leadership training will help and shouldn't be neglected, but it shouldn't be the centerpiece of the program.

It’s important for the training to build slowly, with lots of opportunities to practice. For example, Rising Team’s software provides prompts and templates that leaders can use to practice empathy — like asking team members what working style they prefer, what type of feedback they respond to and the areas where they're struggling the most.

Dulski encourages leaders to set time aside in every meeting or interaction to ask questions and create space for others to share opinions. “It helps leaders get in the habit of practicing empathy,” she said. “Like any skill, if they don't practice, then they won't get good at it.”

It may sound touchy feely, but it can make a big difference. As the Catalyst survey shows, companies with empathetic leaders have more engaged, productive and loyal workers. “When people care for each other, it creates an environment where everyone can thrive,” Fields Tyler said. “That is good for your people, and it is good for your business.”

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