Empathy In Leadership; Should A Boss Be Kind?

Tyler entered his boss Kim’s office calmly, but she could tell he wasn’t happy. “I’m wondering if you can take me off the task force.” Tyler seemed nervous but spoke assertively. “I think it would be more efficient if I focused on my own cases.”

“So, the project isn’t going well?” she asked.

“It’s going okay.” Tyler squirmed. “I just don’t think I need to be there.”

Kim knew the project had to have someone from Tyler’s department – and that he was the only staff at the level needed. She herself was pressed for time and felt a little irritated that he couldn’t just run with the assignment and make it work.

How would you react to Tyler if you were his boss?

Your answer might depend on how much you agree with the following statements: Leaders should be logical, self-controlled, and able to think clearly under pressure. Leaders must make decisions based on facts, not fear or favoritism. Leaders command unquestioning obedience and set aside emotion to get the job done. A leader has to be tough; being emotional shows loss of power and self-command. To lead is not to follow instructions, but to give them. Leaders make the decisions and take responsibility for the consequences.

If you found yourself nodding in agreement, I invite you to consider these statements too: What if “getting the job done” and making good decisions also requires an extraordinary capacity to care? What if operating more like a facilitator than a stoic authority gets better results? What if empathy is a defining requirement of good leadership?

You can be an old-fashioned leader who cares about making sure the numbers come out right, but what will make or break whether that works is how you treat people. I’ve noticed a few things about executives committed to caring. They aren’t “nice,” if nice implies conflict-avoidant or concerned about reputation. They aren’t “emotional” if that means alarmingly labile. But they are kind. And the caring questions they ask themselves seem to increase their success: How can I listen and show I’ve heard? How can I offer attention and recognition? How can I help my people grow? How can I let them know we are here for a larger purpose and agree on core values?

Listening and Professional Development

Most leaders understand that catching people doing things right, especially in front of their peers, boosts morale and engagement, and thus productivity. But not all know how to ask staff what their goals are and assign them activities that support those, being explicit about the link.

This kind of attention on an individual’s unique strengths for the purpose of career development cannot rely on assumption. For example, a “reward” like promotion could land an employee in the hospital with a stress-related illness. Promotion is not everyone’s dream!

Let’s see how Kim listened to Tyler. She began with, “Tell me how it’s working now,” and probed to identify where his discomfort lay. When it emerged that Tyler, a brilliant but socially shy researcher, was being asked to spearhead client engagement, Kim suggested he request a background role more suited to his strengths, and he agreed. “But,” he said, “I still don’t see the point of this project.”

Creating a Meaningful Story -- Together

Making meaning might not seem like a leader’s job, but empathy can also look like respecting the moral animal in others. People want to know how their work contributes to the goal of the enterprise. What movie we are in, and what are we doing in it? What is the future state we aspire to? For some, understanding and agreeing with the company’s mission matters even more than compensation. And, an inspiring narrative context becomes a power source: a leader can link tasks back to it.

Taking time to have those conversations collaboratively is a front-end investment that makes later efficiency possible. Empathy can look like respecting others’ voice. In the past, leaders made decisions without consultation. Employees would have been surprised to be asked their opinion. Today’s empathic leaders are more likely to see the advantages of holding a retreat and seeking a collective epiphany, knowing that complex problems cannot be addressed by unilateral thinking.

When people feel their ideas were heard, not only do they feel bought-in, but they can gallop on their own; the leader doesn’t have to give all the orders. If a group is united on mission and objectives, they can independently plan the right specifics or react to hurdles with the right responses. Coming to decisions with all voices heard also fosters continued coordination in the execution phase.

When Kim realized from Tyler’s comment that members of the task force did not understand the importance of their mission, she arranged a meeting with the team lead, James, and asked for his ideas. Together, they met with the team. James described the context and asked the group how they thought the company should proceed. (Kim had an eye on developing James as a leader when she asked him to chair the conversation.)

The value of values

Clearly, empathic leadership has advantages. But is empathy an “extra” or does it produce results in real terms? A study reported in the Harvard Business Review claimed that “emotional commitment,” which arises when workers value, enjoy and believe in what they do, has four times the power to affect performance as “rational commitment” based on professional or financial self-interest.

Some organizations are enjoying up to 20% higher levels of employee performance not because they pay more or provide better benefits but because they let each employee know how important they are to the success of the business, give them lots of opportunities to contribute, and help them believe in the worth and credibility of the organization. (Leigh Buchanan, pg 20, HBR December 2004, vol 82 no. 12.)

Back in our brainstorming meeting with James’ team, a few changes to approach resulted from the discussion, but the biggest change was the level of gusto. The task force’s deliverables were weeks ahead of schedule.

Empathy for its own sake

The paradox is that empathy has value on its own, not as a means to profit. Empathic leaders are not kind in order to succeed in business, they are trying to succeed because they are committed to a larger good. In getting their bearings from a deeper sense of integrity and taking on more responsibility than they have to (empathy is optional!) they become someone their employees want to listen to, not someone who compels obedience.

I hope if you are in a management role that you have found value in this brief look at empathy in leadership. If you’d like to look at how empathy applies to specific challenges you are facing at work, let’s talk! It feels good to be authentic and make conscious choices aligned with real values. Usually all it takes is stopping to reflect and ask the powerful, simple questions. That’s what your coach is there for.

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Atieno Bird, MA, CP, is a life coach certified in Psychodrama, Conflict Resolution, Co-Active Coaching, and Appreciative Inquiry, and has twenty years of training, facilitation, and coaching experience in corporate, clinical, law enforcement, nonprofit, multilateral and government settings with over a thousand professionals. For a free consult, visit the Two Bird Coaching website: www.atienobird.com