I worked for a boss once who was profoundly uncomfortable with feelings. He was a likeable guy who preferred to keep his distance when things got personal or emotional. It wasn’t unusual for him to miss meetings where contentious issues were going to be discussed.

My boss’ lack of empathy allowed him to deal with the facts at hand, without the complication of wading into various perspectives or attitudes. What he lost, however, was the ability to maximize our emotional intelligence, an important factor in team success.

Empathy was defined by Daniel Goleman in the HBR article, What Makes a Leader, as “the ability to understand the emotional makeup of other people” and “skill in treating people according to their emotional reactions.”

If you’re thinking that empathy is an unnecessary distraction, consider its benefits to leaders:

Empathy gives you insight. You will gain a richer understanding of your organization’s people, competitors and customers – and therefore make better decisions.

Empathy enhances influence. You will not be able to sway your peers or boss without understanding their perspectives and attitudes. Your attempts at persuasion will fall on deaf ears if you do not connect with what is important to them.

Empathy helps you leverage diversity. Your team is composed of people with skills, experiences and cultural backgrounds that are different from yours. Asking genuine questions and not making assumptions will help you not only “get them” as people, it will also allow you to tap into their interests and utilize their unique abilities.

How to enhance empathy?

Start with humility. You haven’t got it all figured out. Recognize that you need all of your people’s capabilities – tangible and intangible – to succeed.

Be curious. Listen more and talk less. Ask questions about what people are thinking and feeling. Don’t assume you already know.

Ask for feedback and input, and really mean it. Use the ideas and innovations that your team shares. This will encourage people to share more over time.

Empathy isn’t a magic bullet, as noted by Steve Tobak in a recent post. It is an important tool for your leadership toolbox that should be regularly used.

“If you just learn a single trick, Scout, you’ll get along a lot better with all kinds of folks. You never really understand a person until you consider things from his point of view…until you climb inside of his skin and walk around in it” (Atticus Finch, a fictitious character in the book, To Kill a Mockingbird).


To find out more about how you can beef up your empathy, contact Humanergy.

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