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Leading Through Empathy

“Empathy” conjures up visions of touchy-feely, “oh you poor baby” sorts of interactions. What could empathy possibly have to do with leadership? Quite a bit, actually. Last month, we explored why listening is important to leadership. Listening is the key to understanding, which is the key to persuasion. Leadership is all about persuasion. But what does empathy have to do with this? Empathy is a deeper form of understanding. Empathy goes beyond understanding by putting yourself in the other person’s shoes, in order to understand what she feels. Empathy is the ability to understand the emotions of others, and enhances your skill at dealing with people according to their emotional reactions.

Emotions impact our actions and attitudes. Leaders who ignore or deny the power of emotions do so at their peril. Effective leaders understand their followers’ emotions and know how to deal with them. Emotional reactions are powerful drivers, sometimes of negative actions (or inaction), sometimes of positive action. An empathetic leader understands the emotional aspects of a situation and uses that understanding to mitigate the negative and harness the positive.

There is growing recognition of empathy’s importance to leadership. A significant body of evidence points to the importance of emotional intelligence (EQ) to professional success. Your EQ consists of five components: self-awareness, self-regulation, motivation, empathy and social skills. Empathy holds a central role in EQ. Not only is it an important skill in its own right, empathy also improves your self-awareness, self-regulation and social skills. The link between empathy and social skills is relatively clear, so let’s examine self-awareness and regulation. Empathy and self-awareness are inextricably linked. In fact, there is evidence that the same brain cells impact both. Think of self-awareness as the first step in building empathy. You have to understand your own emotions and emotional reactions before you can understand others’. Let’s take this one step further. Understanding your own emotions lets you more effectively recognize and control your emotional reactions and impulses. This, by definition, is self-regulation. Imagine completely controlling your emotional reactions to leadership situations. Valuable, isn’t it?

Building your empathy skills impacts your leadership in other ways. The trust your followers place in you has a huge impact on your effectiveness as a leader. Greater empathy helps build mutual respect and understanding, which leads to greater trust. Being more empathetic also increases your social capital (which is the value that you derive from your social networks). Empathy helps you more readily build useful relationships; these relationships are your social networks.

Empathy also helps you develop effective, persuasive messages. The most powerful messages have three components, a credible messenger, a logical argument, and an emotional appeal. Empathy helps with all of these. Understanding your audience’s emotional “hot buttons” lets you build logical arguments that avoid negative emotional responses. Empathy also enhances your ability to build messages that trigger positive emotional reactions. Finally, over the long run, empathy improves perceptions of your trustworthiness, which enhances your credibility.

We now see that empathy is important to leadership. But, how can leaders become more empathetic? The first step is to be aware of and reflect on your own emotional responses. It’s difficult to understand others before you understand yourself. The second step is to recognize that if your emotions impact your reactions, the same is true of others. Attend to others’ emotions and emotional reactions. Listen for cues that clue you in on the emotions present in a situation. Finally, it helps to genuinely care about others. Of course, such caring brings about other benefits as well. One final word of advice: empathy is important, but it does not require suspending logic and analysis. Treat emotions as one of many aspects of any situation (not the only aspect). In the same way leaders need to understand the financial implications of a decision, they also need to understand emotional implications. Become more empathetic and you’ll become a better leader. FBN



The W.A. Franke College of Business at Northern Arizona University is home to over 2,800 undergraduate and Master’s students. The College’s faculty and staff are dedicated to the success of its students and the economic development of the region. For more information on The W.A. Franke College of Business, please see:


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