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Is empathy a sign of 'soft leadership'​?


Empathy, defined by Greater Good Magazine as "the ability to sense other people's emotions, combined with the ability to imagine what someone else might be thinking or feeling," is frequently regarded as a sign of being 'soft' in the leadership realm. But it's not soft in the least. To express empathy, I believe a strong leader is required.

Empathetic leaders can put themselves in the shoes of their employees, peers, and customers and connect on a level that allows them to understand their motivations and desires. This skill can help leaders achieve positive outcomes in negotiations, close sales, motivate employees, and develop future leaders.


I've had the opportunity to work, connect, and collaborate with a diverse range of leaders from maritime industry. I've witnessed firsthand the difference between leading with empathy and leading without it. I've seen businesses fail because a management team member simply did not take the time to listen. I've seen incredible cultures crumble due to a lack of empathy and the ability and willingness to support employees in need. I've also seen how empathy can help a business grow. I've grown as I've practiced more empathy in my daily interactions. It's a skill I look for when hiring new employees and collaborating with others.


Empathy as a skill entails scanning data, sorting it, and analyzing it for essential information and cues to understand and identify the thoughts and feelings of others. The data isn't numbers or charts; rather, it's observational and input data about how people respond to feedback, process information, work, and what type of personality they have.

Empathy is distinct from sympathy, which is concerned with and comprehending the suffering or plight of others. Empathy is a fundamental concept in relationship building, which is a critical aspect of effective leadership.


Empathy may be required to improve your ability to create a shared vision and direction and inspire your stakeholders to take action. Empathy skills, fortunately, can be learned and improved. Here are four simple ways to increase empathy in your leadership.


1. Make yourself available.

Being available does not imply that you must be reachable at all hours, respond to emails within minutes, or respond to social media comments immediately. It refers to making yourself emotionally available to your coworkers, peers, and customers. Place your phone down and make eye contact. Take a personal interest and demonstrate to others that you genuinely care. Everyone wants to be heard, and when you take the time to stop, listen, and care, you can inspire others to do the same.


2. Begin by listening.

It is difficult for a leader to listen without interrupting or offering advice most of the time. However, one of the most important characteristics of an empathetic leader is the ability to sit (or stand) and actively listen simply. Sometimes people just need to vent or talk through their problems to gather their thoughts. Keep your mouth shut and just listen. Many times, all I've had to do to show empathy to someone was simply listen, and by doing so, they felt valued enough to come up with a solution on their own.


When listening empathetically, avoid dismissing someone's concerns before hearing the whole story. Wait your turn to speak, and don't interrupt, as there could be important information just around the corner. Allow people to own their time with you and make them feel as if it is their moment when they have your undivided attention. Simply put, first and foremost, listen.

A word of caution: you may need to decide how much time you can devote to listening. As I mentioned in the previous section, being available to people does not imply that you must always be available; you do not have to commit to listening incessantly. Set your limits and be realistic. To make your time more efficient, try to eliminate distractions. If someone brings up a topic with you at an inconvenient time, or you've been listening for a long time, wait for a pause to interject, summarize what the person has shared with you, and suggest a specific future time to pick things up so you can come up with a solution.


3. Maintain Accountability

When problems arise, people frequently need to confide in someone to help them work through them. Being empathetic goes beyond simply being available and listening: Follow up to demonstrate that you are genuinely interested in the person and the problem. Check-in periodically to see how things are going and resolve the problem. Make yourself available and listen once more. If the problem has not been resolved, offer alternative ideas or suggestions. Empathy entails a feedback loop of checking in until the problem is resolved or the person feels better.


4. Set a good example

You are being watched as a business leader. Whether employees or customers, your stakeholders are constantly observing how you lead and basing their confidence and trust in you on your actions. What does this have to do with empathy? It's straightforward. People reflect what they see, and if they see you taking the time to be available, listen, understand, and value the thoughts and feelings of others, they will be likely to do the same. So, if you lead with empathy, you will be teaching others to do the same.


Still think empathy is a sign of weakness? Let me know your thoughts.

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