When it comes to leadership, do you think of empathy as one of those 'soft and fuzzy' skills? Well, here's some hard facts that may surprise you…
Several researchers at some of the world's leading universities have confirmed empathy is critical to being an effective leader. Even Google, one of the world's largest, most innovative companies, embarked on their own research to uncover the traits of their top performing teams and discovered this: 'psychological safety' – the ability to be supported, understood, to have each other's backs – came out as number one. THE most important trait for Google's highest performing teams. That's empathy in action.
Empathy is one of the most unexpected powers you can develop as a leader, and it's a key domain of emotional intelligence. So let's talk about empathy and how it plays into our work, relationships and leadership.
First, what is it? We all know how awesome it feels to be truly supported and understood by a friend, a spouse, a best friend at work or a leader. Empathy is the ability to experience and understand what others feel, while maintaining a clear discernment about your own and the other person's feelings and perspectives. Empathy is not psychologising, sympathising or even necessarily agreeing. It's walking in another's shoes and seeking to understand their feelings and perspectives.
So, how do we build empathy?
Here's the first surprising answer from neuroscience: understand that we are wired to connect. Neuroscience shows how that humans are "hardwired for empathy." In fact, brain imaging technology has shown similar brain networks used to process one's own emotions are used to understand others' emotions. So, building your own self awareness (as we've been talking about in these videos as the foundation of emotional intelligence) will ALSO help you develop greater skill and mastery in empathy for others. In other words, once you have increased self-awareness and greater clarity about what you are feeling and why you're feeling it, it's easier to experience and understand the emotions and feelings of others.
Second, we can increase empathy by developing positive mental habits. One of my mentors and a well-respected author on sales and leadership effectiveness, Ron Willingham, has a valuable tip for developing empathy and building trust with others. He would teach leaders to keep this phrase in their mind: 'there's something about you I like'. It's about moving away from habits of judging and criticizing others, which, let's face it, we all do way too much. Rather, we start training our mind's default to be about seeing the good and the similarities we all face in the highs and lows of simply being human. That's building positive mental habits for empathy.
And finally, practise being a great listener. There's no substitute for being truly present for another person. And the best listeners and most effective leaders have made this a priority.
So, in summary, as humans we are incredibly social – in fact our brains are wired to connect. It's what has allowed us to survive for thousands of years and it's what will support you building rapport, trust and relationship with others. No longer thought of as a 'soft skill', empathy is a 'human skill' that will help you be an even more effective leader.