Soft skills such as empathy and emotional intelligence are often still undervalued in the workplace, but understanding their importance can create a more positive and productive work environment.
“Most people think empathy is just something you reserve for your life and your family and your friends, but the reality is that it’s an existential priority of a business.”–Satya Nadella, CEO of Microsoft
The value of both can sometimes be difficult to understand since neither is regularly promoted or clear-cut. Often neither skill is accounted for in performance reviews and they are rarely acknowledged verbally by team leaders. However, we believe that bosses should be celebrating both. As well as creating a more positive and productive workplace, understanding and recognising empathy is an important ingredient which helps create strong leaders.
An empathetic leader is one who can understand and connect with the emotions of their co-workers and is then able to apply this awareness to their interactions and own leadership style. They will not simply feel for another person but will feel with that person and understand the world through their eyes.
Leaders who are not convinced as to the importance of emotional intelligence will often state that empathy is not as important as other managerial skills, but research* is showing that understanding what co-workers and others are feeling is positively related to their job performance. While the reason for this may not yet be fully understood, it seems to lie around the fact that empathetic workers can build and maintain relationships more readily.
People feel more understood, heard and appreciated in the workplace if empathetic behaviour is promoted. Feeling appreciated boosts their morale, engagement, productivity and, importantly, retention. Empathetic leaders will show that they care about their employees’ work and aspirations. They will make the time to actively listen to individuals, recognise the value of 1:1 meetings and want to develop a mutual sense of trust and understanding which comes from these growing relationships. The trust comes into play when issues arise such as a product development issue or a deadline which cannot be met. Teams with an empathetic leader whom they trust will feel able to address difficult situations with honest, productive conversations and solutions.
Empathetic feelings and behaviour are not always easy to find for some, particularly in light of our increasing use of technology, which can actually make us less empathetic by encouraging an instant reaction to what we see on our screens. However, empathy can be acknowledged and learnt as part of a deeper emotional intelligence training programme. We can make a start this week by taking the time to put down our devices, step away from our computers and engage in conversations. It’s a great way to practise active listening and empathy and something we should aspire to do every single working day. Simply being aware of your own level of empathy and working on your emotional intelligence is a great start.
*including the 2018 State of Workplace Empathy Study by Businessolver