6 Tips on Empathetic Leadership From a CEO - Spoiler: Empathy Isn’t a Trait, It’s A Skill

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      25 June 2021 (updated: 29 August 2022) by  Anna Elwart Anna Elwart

      Empathetic leadership is the new black. A good thing is you can learn it.

      The truth about psychopath bosses

      There is bad news and good news about psychopath bosses. The bad news is: all bosses are psychopaths. The good news, you are too. Because psychopathy is actually a spectrum on which we all are.

      Oxford research psychologist, Kevin Dutton wrote an interesting book to prove that the term “psychopath” should not be treated as a black and white negative. Supposedly, this is backed up by research and the recent advances in brain scanning and neuroscience (says the publisher).

      5-tips-on-empathetic-leadership-2The Wisdom of Psychopaths: What Saints, Spies, and Serial Killers Can Teach Us About Success by Kevin Dutton

      The key learning from that read is that psychopathy, like most things, in moderation, can be actually a good thing. Especially for your career. According to the author, people who score high on the spectrum of psychopathy tend to be fearless, confident, charming, ruthless and focused. They perform well under pressure. And he concludes that those qualities are tailor-made for success in the twenty-first century.

      But it is important to recognize that bosses, just like brain surgeons (who by the way have one of the highest scores on the scale I mentioned), hold someone's life in their hands. Well, at least some part of it. And we should expect them to be responsible for it.

      The need for empathy in leadership

      No matter where you personally would land on a psychopathy scale - keep on reading because most people could use some comfort at their workplace. Now, after the uncertainty of lockdowns and the wait for what “the new normal” will bring, leaders need to step up and make lives better simply because they have the power to do so - let’s talk some more about empathetic leadership.

      6 tips for more empathetic leadership from a CEO

      1. Empathy doesn’t mean you need to be all emotional and mushy

      Empathy doesn’t mean that you need to be all emotional and mushy. It is the ability to understand another person’s experience, their point of view, needs and feelings. To master it, you have to be a good listener and be able to put your own emotions aside. Empathy is not about how you feel about your colleague's problems and fears. It’s about understanding their perspective.

      Sometimes to encourage others to open, you need to be the first one to reveal your soft spots. And one empathy myth is already water under the bridge - talking about emotions and fears is no longer recognized as a sign of weakness. Quite the opposite. Showing your insecurities and mistakes can be your way to be more authentic - it is valued by most people.

      An important note though: it is one thing to share your feelings, and another to lash out at employees. So, even though all this honesty is important, managers have to be aware of the strong impact they have on others. Be conscious of what you are sharing, and how you are sharing it. I’ve been guilty of oversharing myself, so I know how hard, and at the same time, how important, the balance can be.

      It’s not enough that the team members talk to you. You need to ensure that you not only hear what they are saying but also understand the underlying meaning of it. Active listening is one of the most important skills in people management. It means that you are engaged in a way that is expressed by listening attentively when someone else speaks.

      Useful language tools to get a good understanding of the point of view of the other person are paraphrasing and reflecting back on what was said. And the key factor of active listening practised by an empathetic leader is withholding judgment and advice.

      Communication is not a one-way street. Or at least it shouldn’t be if you want to collaborate with others successfully. And it is unarguably a basic foundation of empathetic leadership.

      2. Don't offer solutions, offer support

      Empathetic leadership is especially important in moments of doubts, while facing failure and when people feel stuck. If you want to practice empathetic leadership, listen, ask questions, dig deeper when people reach out to you.

      If someone is sharing their problems with you, it doesn’t always mean that they want you to fix things for them. Sometimes employees need to know that their struggles are recognized, and other times they only need to let off steam. Consider it a good sign that they turn to you.

      In cases where your help is needed, don’t jump straight to the action plan. Don't draw conclusions immediately. Ask questions that will help you “get under the skin” of the matter - it is better to understand what problem someone is really dealing with. If something has gone wrong - talk not only about how to fix it, but also how to deal with the feelings of defeat, helplessness or even the bitterness of failure.

      Some questions you might find useful:
      • How do you feel about this?
      • What changed for you after it happened?
      • How do we change the situation?
      • What can we do about it?

      Also, don’t be afraid to ask what they need from you - Is there anything you would like me to do about it? What kind of support do you need now?, these kind of questions, you know the drill.

      3. Invest your time in providing quality feedback

      One of leaders’ essential skills is the ability to make decisions quickly. The risk of this approach is that they might want to jump into the next thing if they don’t think that idea presented to them was worth their time and investment. And yes, maybe the idea really wasn’t worth it, but it doesn’t automatically apply to the people behind it. They deserve their work to be recognized. And they deserve an understanding of why their idea doesn’t resonate with you. Your respect and information you give them will improve their future proposals. So if you want people to be engaged, appreciate the effort they put in and make time to provide quality feedback.

      Let me share my experience on this. A long, long time ago I was a new girl at the office. And one of the parallel managers on another team had way too much on her plate. I decided to step out and offer my help. Overnight I prepared a big part of the strategy for her client. A week later, I bumped into her and asked if she liked the material because I had never heard back from her. Her only response was: “Those slides were shit”. Imagine that. I felt humiliated like never before. Later, I learned that she did in fact use them, and didn’t recall calling them shit. I guess, the rush was to blame. But also - lack of empathy, because it should not have happened.

      4. Don't be the only shoulder to cry and rely on

      Make empathy a vital part of your company culture. Create a safe space. Show soft spots. Evangelize active listening and discussing emotions. Encourage people to support each other. And don't forget to remind them to fill their own emotional tanks.

      Lead by example, so others can follow. Often managers act in a certain way because that's the only way they know Show them how to use empathy as a collective superpower. How can it be done?

      Let’s think about one common statement “Your personal problems shouldn’t influence your performance at work”. Although it might sound logical, it’s simply inhumane. If someone just broke up, or their family member is terminally ill this in most cases will influence them. Those things are happening and are a natural part of life. Be a decent human being. There are ups and downs for all of us. When you will support and care for your team when they need it the most, they will be there for you when they will be back on their feet to deliver the best they can.

      I remember this one time, when one of our Seniors was very upset. This was very unusual for the optimistic type she was. The reason behind it was personal - her fiancé broke up with her out of the blue. She couldn’t focus on work. And her behaviour was a distraction to others. But instead of sending her home, I canceled all meetings that day and booked us a table at a small cafe away from the crowd. Even though she knew she couldn’t work, she needed someone to be around until she got a chance to get her thoughts straight.

      5. Give trust and empower

      If you are an empathetic person, you understand the hopes and dreams of others. As a leader don’t stop at knowing things, create an environment for others to act, so they can grow.

      Understanding is crucial, but this is only a starting point. If you know what others want, and you can cater for their needs in ways that also help your business (in short & long-term), just do it. Or even better - make it possible. Give your team trust and empower them to do their thing. This will create an environment where the employees are independent in their work, but they also know they can approach you for advice and support.

      With empowerment and independence comes decision-making. What does it feel like? Sometimes it’s a lot of pressure to sort out the choices. Doesn’t matter how things will turn out - your assistance as an emphatic leader will be needed. As both success and failure might generate strong emotions. Remind your employees to share the success and to learn from mistakes. Guide them on how to cherish great results and how to deal with stressful situations. Also, remind them that both situations are a part of the process of building something greater with your team.

      6. Implement people analytics

      An important question: is empathetic leadership scalable? You might be responsible for a bigger group of people and using your eyes and ears might not be enough. Also, if you are working in a remote or a hybrid setup, there are fewer opportunities to judge the situation, e.g. someone’s body language.
      Whenever possible, be truly present with your team. Take time to listen to them - as you already know, active listening is extremely important. Be genuinely curious, encourage discussions and ask questions that help others to open up.

      When you decide you need a wider reach, try implementing “people analytics”. One way to do it is to introduce some sort of happiness survey. Simply ask people how they feel and if they would like to share anything with you. How often can you ask? That would depend on your teams’ dynamics. But it would be good to give people an easy way to reach out to you in-between the surveys.

      At EL Passion we use the eNPS (Employee Net Promoter Score) methodology to collect data from our team. We simply ask on a scale from 1 to 10 what are the chances that they would recommend our software & design agency as a good place to work for their friends. We also have an “EL Question Box” where you can share your thoughts and ask questions at any time. The other thing I do is “Walkie Talkie” meetings. They are 15 min long meeting slots, open for everyone who needs it at the time.

      Finally, choose your own path as a leader

      Most people think that those bad, awful, terrible psychopaths don’t understand the feelings of others. Actually, they do. They just don’t care. Don’t be one.

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