Being empathetic and keyed into your emotions as a manager has always been vital. But why is it important and how do you develop it as a skill?
For some managers, honing your empathy and emotional intelligence skills comes secondary to other skills. Traditionally leadership was seen as rigid, hierarchical and more functional than emotional i.e. ‘I tell you what to do and you do it!’ This was the accepted wisdom but it didn’t make employees feel positive about their role or respect their manager either. Increasingly in the modern world of work, empathy is seen as a vital skill when it comes to effective leadership.
Empathy also has a tangible impact on team performance, levels of innovation and staff retention. 76% of people who experienced empathy from their leaders reported they were engaged compared with only 32% who experienced less empathy. When people reported their leaders were empathetic, they were also more likely to report they were able to be innovative—61% of employees compared to only 13% of employees with less empathetic leaders1.
There are different ways for leaders to show empathy - one is putting themselves in their employees shoes and seeing a problem from their perspective. The other is questioning employees about the challenges they might be facing and listening to their responses.
At its core, managing with empathy works because it allows your team to feel seen, which makes them feel appreciated. The opposite of this approach is a manager who ignores the needs of their employee and pushes their objectives regardless. This creates resentment and also contributes to burn out where employees feel overwhelmed because their needs are not being taken into account. In essence if your team feels valued, they’ll be more willing to go the extra mile.
Imagine how you feel in a scenario where your emotional needs are not being met. How does it make you feel? This will help you better understand how an employee feels when you make assumptions about their feelings and don’t take time to relate to them and listen to their point of view.
When you’re managing a team they will look to you to see how you relate to other people and what your values are.
If you use empathy in your communication and are authentic, employees will tend to do the same too. So if an employee comes to you with a problem, employ active listening. Active listening means that you pay full attention, acknowledge what your employee is saying, and make sure that you’ve understood their point of view, then move on to feeding back your thoughts without rushing to conclusions. This type of listening is important in diffusing difficult work situations as it makes the employee feel seen and it demonstrates that you’re taking their experience on board and using it to shape your decision on what to do next.
Empathy can be a hard skill to practice if you yourself are feeling stretched and overwhelmed so it’s important that you devote time to looking after your own mental health and have tools in place so you can keep perspective and a semblance of work/life balance. Stressed leaders model stress and reactiveness to employees and empathy goes out the window.
What’s the difference between empathy and emotional intelligence? Rather than focusing on the feelings of others, emotional intelligence is the ability to recognise and understand your own emotions.
Emotional intelligence (often referred to as EQ) is a must-have skill. It potentially differentiates you from other managers. The four main components of EQ are self-awareness, self-management, social awareness, and relationship management.
The fundamental concept to take away is knowing how your own emotions and responses affect your team. Emotional intelligence is about understanding how your own state of mind impacts on others. If for example you’re not feeling your best mental health wise, then it’s probably best to take some time out, and arrange a 1:1 meeting for a time that you’re feeling more mentally settled (or you will struggle to empathise as you yourself will be feeling resentful/overwhelmed and more in the fight/flight state). It’s also about being mindful in your communication and not letting your own emotions get in the way (so if you’re feeling angry then wait until you calm down rather than saying something you regret later).
Overall developing your empathy skills as a manager will really help you create an engaged, loyal and positive team long term.