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Empathy as strategy: Leading with heart

O’Brien endorses those who intentionally develop EQ within the executive landscape, saying, “It’s one of the bravest and smartest decisions for a CEO to make. It takes setting aside one’s ego to admit that focused development of your EQ is needed, and then the courage to commit to confronting emotions that might make you uncomfortable. It doesn’t come naturally to those accustomed to more traditional leadership, which is characterized by a perceived need for  hierarchical detachment.”

While traditional leadership typically calls for individuals to leave their personal lives at home, empathy allows leaders to acknowledge and accept people for what they are: human.

As the adage goes, the only constant in life is change. In the current-day workplace landscape which is constantly evolving, traditional notions of leadership are being challenged and redefined. With the rise of the digital age and the increasing complexity of business environments, there is a growing recognition of the critical role that empathy plays in effective leadership.

While technology ensures that we are more connected than ever before, a recent survey* revealed that around two-thirds of people feel disconnected at work. Although this is particularly prevalent among hybrid employees, disengagement within teams was observed long before the pandemic disrupted the traditional workforce.

In the context of leadership, empathy refers to a leader’s ability to understand, relate to, and resonate with the thoughts, feelings, and experiences of their team members. It involves putting oneself in another’s shoes, seeing things from their perspective, and responding with sensitivity and compassion.

Faced with a workforce as disillusioned as the figures suggest, empathy is the most appropriate response.

The Role of Empathy in the Modern Era

Empathy, which was traditionally perceived as a weakness, is emerging as a strategic imperative for C-suite executives to drive organizational success. We are observing how empathy enhances employee engagement and helps to navigate the multifaceted challenges of today’s business world.

“The world has changed, and continues to change, at a rapid pace,” says Jim O’Brien, Partner at Signium Ireland. “We experienced the Covid-19 pandemic, which for many of us caused a ‘reset’ to what really matters in life, i.e. relationships and particularly family. Furthermore, a new generation has entered the workforce who are more focused on work-life balance than Generations X or even Y. More than ever, people need to feel valued, and empathy from their leaders is critical to employees feeling valued.”

Empathetic leadership is significant in several ways for building trust, fostering collaboration, and enhancing communication within organizations:

  • Building Trust

When leaders demonstrate empathy, they create an environment where team members feel understood, valued, and supported. This fosters trust because employees feel their leaders genuinely care about their well-being and are willing to listen to their concerns.

  • Fostering Collaboration

Empathetic leaders are adept at recognizing the strengths and weaknesses of their team members and can create opportunities for collaboration that leverage these strengths. By understanding each team member’s perspective, they can facilitate open communication and encourage cooperation among individuals with diverse backgrounds and viewpoints.

  • Enhancing Communication

Empathy enables leaders to communicate more effectively by tailoring their messages to resonate with the emotions and experiences of their audience. This leads to clearer understanding, increased engagement, and reduced misunderstandings.

  • Employee Motivation

When employees feel understood and supported by their leaders, they are more motivated to perform at their best. Empathetic leaders recognize the individual needs and aspirations of their team members and can provide personalized encouragement and support, which boosts motivation and engagement.

  • Creating Resilience

Empathetic leaders help build individual and team resilience by offering understanding and support during challenging times. By acknowledging and validating their employees’ feelings, leaders can help them navigate obstacles and setbacks more effectively, nurturing a sense of resilience and perseverance.

  • Enabling Employee Well-being

Empathetic leadership contributes to employee well-being by creating a positive work environment where individuals feel safe, respected, and valued. Leaders who demonstrate empathy are more likely to address issues such as stress, burnout, and work-life balance, leading to higher levels of job satisfaction and overall well-being among employees.

How C-Suite Leaders Can Cultivate Empathy

There are numerous practical strategies that leaders can use to cultivate and demonstrate empathy within the workplace. Actively and intentionally implementing empathy as a strategy leads to a more positive and inclusive organizational culture where employees feel valued, supported, and motivated to perform.

1. Practice Active Listening

C-suite leaders can enhance their empathy by actively listening to their team members without interruptions or distractions. Encourage leaders to practice reflective listening, paraphrasing what they hear to ensure understanding, and asking open-ended questions to delve deeper into employees’ thoughts and feelings.

2. Show Vulnerability

Leaders can demonstrate empathy by showing vulnerability and authenticity in their employee interactions, and by sharing certain personal experiences, challenges, and mistakes. This creates a sense of connection and trust with team members and fosters a culture of openness where employees feel comfortable seeking support when they need it.

3. Develop Emotional Intelligence

C-suite leaders can develop their emotional intelligence by enhancing their self-awareness, self-regulation, social awareness, and relationship management skills. Engaging in mindfulness practices, self-reflection, reverse-mentoring, and emotional intelligence training to better understand their emotions and those of others, leads to more empathetic leadership.

O’Brien endorses those who intentionally develop EQ within the executive landscape, saying, “It’s one of the bravest and smartest decisions for a CEO to make. It takes setting aside one’s ego to admit that focused development of your EQ is needed, and then the courage to commit to confronting emotions that might make you uncomfortable. It doesn’t come naturally to those accustomed to more traditional leadership, which is characterized by a perceived need for  hierarchical detachment.”

4. Actively Build Rapport

Organizational executives can build rapport with their team members by getting to know them on a more personal level. This could involve scheduling one-on-one meetings, participating in team-building activities, and being genuinely attentive to employees’ lives, interests, and aspirations. Building strong relationships fosters trust and mutual respect, making it easier for leaders to demonstrate empathy.

5. Practice Empathy through Gestures

Leaders can demonstrate empathy through small gestures of acknowledgment, appreciation, and support. Encourage C-suite leaders to recognize and celebrate employees’ achievements, offer encouragement during difficult times, and provide support and resources to help employees succeed. These gestures convey empathy and show leaders value and care about their team members’ well-being.

Empathy in Action: How HubSpot Drives Empathy

With over 7,500 employees, Tech innovation company HubSpot has been lauded for its positive and inclusive workplace culture for years. Dharmesh Shah, co-founder of the organization, personally invested over 200 hours into creating the company culture manifesto, a detailed outline of its values, which was not only embraced by the brand’s employees but also viewed and admired by around 6 million people worldwide!

One of the core pillars of HubSpot’s culture is empathy – a value they’ve spent more than a decade cultivating. Some of the intentional steps that HubSpot leadership has taken to foster empathy include the following:

  • HubSpot employees complete a quiz to gauge their empathy levels. Based on the Toronto Empathy Questionnaire, the quiz assesses each individual on emotional contagion, sympathetic physiological arousal, emotion comprehension, and con-specific altruism. Each employee receives reading material and empathy development opportunities based on their unique quiz results.
  • HubSpot actively facilitates personal sharing through live storytelling that focuses on personal anecdotes and accomplishments. Aptly called ‘Humans of HubSpot’, the initiative, which is now digital, shines a spotlight not only on employees but on the organization’s customers and partners too.

The investment in empathy training has yielded substantial benefits for HubSpot. Employees report higher job satisfaction, improved relationships with colleagues, and a greater sense of belonging within the organization. This positive work environment has translated into tangible business outcomes, including increased productivity, enhanced innovation, and stronger client relationships.

HubSpot’s culture of empathy has set the company apart as an employer of choice (Glassdoor’s ‘Best Places to Work’). Prospective employees are attracted to organizations that prioritize employee well-being and personal growth. By emphasizing empathy in its training programs and code of conduct, HubSpot has been able to attract top talent and retain valuable team members committed to the company’s mission and values.

Building an Empathy-Centric Organizational Culture

Empathetic leadership promotes psychological safety, diversity and inclusion, and a sense of belonging among employees. The results are often transformative:

  • Organizational Culture

Empathetic leaders set the tone for a culture of empathy and compassion within the organization. When empathy is valued and practiced at all levels, it becomes an integral part of the organizational culture, leading to increased morale, loyalty, and cohesion among employees – and customers.

  • Performance

Empathetic leadership is closely linked to improved organizational performance. When employees feel supported and valued, they are more likely to be engaged, productive, and committed to achieving shared goals. Additionally, empathetic leaders are better equipped to identify and address issues impacting performance, leading to more effective problem-solving and decision-making processes.

Redefining Leadership Through Empathy

Empathetic leadership has the power to transform organizations, enhance employee well-being, and drive sustainable success. By embracing empathy as a guiding principle and integrating it into their leadership approach, leaders can create thriving workplaces where individuals feel valued, supported, and motivated to achieve their full potential.

“Leaders should embrace empathy as a cornerstone of their leadership philosophy,” urges O’Brien. “Leaders who show genuine empathy and champion a culture of compassion and understanding will build resilient companies that continue to thrive despite the constantly changing business landscape.”

www.signium.com

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