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Empathy: A Critical Skill for Effective Leadership

Empathy: A Critical Skill for Effective Leadership


It’s one of those vague terms you’re fairly certain you know what it means, but you’re not quite sure. You know empathy centres on other people’s feelings, but it’s often confused with its sister – sympathy. Let’s take a look at empathy – what empathy is exactly, what traits do empathetic leaders have, and why is empathy such a critical skill for effective leadership.


What is Empathy?

To discover what empathy is, let’s first talk about what it is not. Empathy is not sympathy. It does not mean you have to agree with how someone is feeling, or even relate to their feelings. Instead, empathy is all about the awareness of other people’s feelings – even when you can’t sympathize with them!


Empathy means you are able to then apply that awareness of another’s feelings, and understand how it affects their needs. When you’re an empathetic leader, you are aware of how these feelings (whether you agree with them or can relate to them or not) impact the other person’s perception. You can appreciate what another person is going through, when you display empathy.


What are the Traits of an Empathetic, Effective Leader?


There are three key traits to empathetic, effective leaders:

  • Good listener
  • Non-judgmental
  • Emotional intelligence


Empathetic leaders follow the “2 Ears – 1 Mouth” rule… they spend more time listening than talking. Leaders who are empathetic focus on the person who is speaking too. Today, there are so many distractions around us, it can significantly impact the quality of our listening skills. Empathetic leaders put away their smartphones and close their e-mail inbox when listening, so all of their attention is on the speaker in front of them!


Empathetic leaders are also non-judgmental, even when the feelings of others are in direct disagreement with their own feelings. They appreciate what the other person is feeling and understand how those feelings are affecting that person’s perception, without passing judgment whether those feelings are right or wrong.


Lastly, empathetic leaders are emotionally intelligent. They are able to step back from their own and the other person’s feelings and analyze those feelings in a subjective manner. Empathetic leaders don’t let the feelings involved in the situation control the outcome.


Why is Empathy Such a Critical Skill for Effective Leadership?


Empathy is critical skill for effective leadership for one, simple reason – trust.


If your employees don’t trust you, you are not a leader; you are just a manager. A key component for building trust with others is empathy. When you show that you are aware of your employee’s feelings and appreciate those feelings, even when you don’t agree with them, it builds trust. The employee has faith that you will at least take their feelings into consideration. You can then use this understanding of their feelings to then give your employees what they need to succeed, further strengthening your relationship, increasing collaboration and improving productivity.


Without empathy, your employees will always have their guards up. They will always feel like they have to look out for their own emotional interest. While with an empathetic leader, the employee knows that their feelings will never be simply overlooked or ignored.

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