Empathy is today's top leadership skill for next-gen CEOs

Empathetic leadership is nothing new, but in the wake of Covid-19, it has taken on fresh significance – and the benefits to business are compelling

While nobody would argue the Covid-19 pandemic was anything but terrible, we can say some things changed for the better when it comes to work. The necessity to work from home, for example, has delivered more balance and flexibility for employees. While pandemic-induced employee burnout has made mental health support a workplace issue.

Challenges like this are where an empathetic leader can truly thrive. Cheryl Fields Tyler, founder and CEO of California-based Blue Beyond Consulting, a management consulting firm that works with mainly Fortune 500 firms, says the pandemic thrust all of us into situations where we were suddenly in each other’s lives in ways we had never been before.  

“One day life was comparatively normal and the next we were going through this profound experience together – overwhelming loss of life, the deaths of George Floyd and others who put the harsh reality of racial injustice front and centre, the grit and suffering of frontline workers who extended themselves on behalf of society, and many others who struggled to balance remote work with childcare, mental health issues, layoffs, and so on.”

The pandemic and calls for corporate accountability for racial inequalities ushered in a new era of empathy, in which business itself must play a central role in prioritising the physical and emotional wellbeing of all stakeholders – from employees to customers to suppliers – as well as the communities in which they operate.

“Business has a new driver – moral capital,” declares Fields Tyler. “People want businesses and their leaders to take a stand, but they also want them to create the shared context of values, information, capabilities, and connection to help break the cycle of mistrust. And this is where empathetic leadership comes in.”

Empathetic leadership – from a nice-to-have to strategic business imperative

Empathetic leadership is nothing new, but it has taken on fresh significance. Long considered a ‘soft skill’ – the antithesis of strength, success, and resilience, all skills traditionally associated with business – empathetic leadership has been gaining momentum in recent years and is now widely considered the most effective leadership trait in 2022.

“We’ve been heading toward this embrace of empathetic skills for over a decade now with the growing awareness that EQ [emotional quotient] is as important as IQ [intelligence quotient],” explains Rob Volpe, an empathy activist, speaker, business strategist and CEO of Ignite 360, a consumer insight and strategy firm based in the San Francisco Bay Area.

Then the pandemic crashed into our lives, creating a situation where employees needed support from leadership in new ways as they adapted to working from home. “Many leaders were unequipped to provide this enhanced level of support and management,” asserts Volpe, and as a result, “employees weren’t feeling supported, weakening their connection to the company.”

It's one of the causes of the Great Resignation, and why empathetic leadership has become a business imperative rather than a nice-to-have as organisations look to attract and retain talent.  

For nearly half (44%) of the Informed Public, being in a workplace with more empathy and human connection is more important to them now than it was pre-pandemic. And it’s even more important for younger employees (52%) and parents (49%).

What is empathetic leadership, and how does it work in practice?

Empathy is defined as the ability to understand and share how someone else feels, to take the point of view of others into consideration so that they feel seen and heard.

“In business, it means seeing your team and colleagues as whole people, understanding their point of view, and using that data point in your decision-making, communication, collaboration, problem-solving and other relevant skills,” explains Volpe.

It all starts with “perspective taking”, adds Fields Tyler, and recognising that others’ perspectives are often different and always valuable. “Good business leaders are practiced in empathy because it helps us make better decisions when we can see things from various points of view.”

That doesn’t mean leaders should accommodate every request or cater to every whim, however. “Hand-in-hand with empathy goes fairness and balance,” says Rhys Cater, digital leader and MD of award-winning digital marketing agency Precis Digital. “As leaders, we need to balance the needs of tens, hundreds, or even thousands of people along with the success of the business.”

Empathetic leadership requires understanding of people

To successfully embed empathy requires leaders to build a culture that is at once strong, but also flexible enough to accommodate a wide range of working styles and personalities, explains Cater. It also requires leaders to understand the people that they work with, and how people’s individual working styles, personal circumstances, and unique background and skills might impact their approach to work.

For example, some people may need help in getting their point across if they aren’t the most naturally assertive, while others might have times when they can’t contribute to their full capacity due to health or personal circumstances.

“Employing empathy in decision-making and people management enables companies to get the best from people by matching their skills and personal working styles to the best teams and projects. It unlocks a better understanding of collaboration styles, and the underlying motivations that allow people to deliver to their full potential.

“It also means recognising that not every person can operate at 100% all of the time, and that priorities need to be adapted.”

Benefits include employee morale, motivation, and productivity

The benefits of empathetic leadership are undeniable and far-reaching. “Everyone benefits when an empathetic approach is employed,” Volpe tells Business Chief. “When you take the perspective of someone else, it enables you to understand their needs and incorporate them into all elements of your work.

“Companies make better products or services that meet the needs of their consumers. And with empathetic leadership, employees feel more support and are able to handle work-life balance. They are also more innovative and less likely to leave the organisation. Empathetic leadership helps get everyone on the boat rowing in the same direction.”

In fact, numerous studies reveal the positive impact of a culture of empathy on employee morale, motivation, loyalty, tenure, and productivity, with Catalyst research finding empathy to be a key driver of employee outcomes like innovation, engagement, and inclusion.

Rob argues that pretty much any business success story has empathy at its core, and believes empathy is fundamental to so many of the skills we need to excel. “Understanding and practicing the principles of empathetic leadership empowers the skills that lets people shine in their jobs,” and this in turn “enables organisations to generate better innovation, improve productivity, foster a sense of belonging, and improve sales effectiveness.”

It makes perfect sense. When you treat your employees empathetically, they are likely to return the favour in attitude, engagement, and productivity, be “more willing to finish that project after hours”, says Fields Taylor, and more inspired to be innovative.

In a recent study of nearly 900 employees, 61% of employees with empathetic leaders feel they thought innovatively on-the-job, compared to just 13% of those with less-empathetic bosses.

They are also more likely to be loyal. “Fewer employees think of leaving their jobs when leaders engage in perspective taking, demonstrating respect and value for their opinions and life circumstances,” Fields Tyler tells Business Chief.  And in today’s business climate, where attracting talent is a huge challenge for leaders and retaining talent a significant advantage, the case for employing empathy is paramount.

Attracting and retaining employees, and ensuring they are happy, motivated, supported, engaged, productive and innovative, is ultimately going to lead to better business outcomes on every level, including improved ROI.

Global consulting firm DDI developed a Global Empathy Index ranking 160 businesses in terms of empathy, with the top 10 most empathetic employers generating 50% more net income than their bottom 10 counterparts.

Becoming an empathetic leader

So, how do you become an empathetic leader? And can anyone? The good news is that empathy is a learnable skill.

In his book, Tell Me More About That: Solving the Empathy Crisis One Conversation at a Time, Volpe delivers five straightforward steps to empathy that “anyone can practice” – dismantle judgement, ask good questions, practice active listening, integrate into understanding, and use solution imagination.

“It’s important that leaders embrace an empathetic style, model it, and encourage it in others,” Volpe tells Business Chief. He urges leaders to take the time to get to know the people you work with and use empathetic language such as ‘I can see where you are coming from…’ or ‘I understand your point of view…’ and then repeat that person’s perspective back to them to ensure you got it right.

Fields Taylor stresses too the need to listen, engage in perspective taking by being curious, ask good questions, and listen carefully to what people are saying.

Describing empathy as a “leadership practice”, not just a solitary act or a feeling as it is often perceived, Fields Taylor says the practice is grounded in attentive listening and building deep-trust relationships. As such, it requires asking “really good” questions, listening closely to understand people’s point of view, and demonstrating through your behaviour that you value relationships. “It’s critical for business leaders to serve as role models for fostering connections that build trust and where people feel seen, heard, and valued.”

To facilitate this process, psychological safety is necessary. Timothy R. Clark, CEO of LeaderFactor and author of The 4 Stages of Psychological Safety talks about the four stages as a condition in which humans feel included, safe to learn, safe to contribute, and safe to challenge the status quo – all without fear of being embarrassed, marginalised, or punished.

“When these stages – or conditions – are met, we create deeply inclusive environments, expedite learning, increase contribution, and stimulate innovation,” says Fields Taylor. “It takes practice, learning, and work, but that work is so worth doing because it makes us better leaders and results in better business outcomes.”

She also urges leaders to show humility and self-awareness. “It’s okay to admit when you don’t know, to share your concerns and frustrations, and to make mistakes, but also to share your hopes, your commitments, and your desire to create solutions together.”

Volpe too says leaders must give themselves some slack, and self-compassion. “We are all human. We’re not going to get it right 100% of the time. What’s important is that we make a genuine effort to practice and improve over time.”

And as the demographics of the workforce continue to change, leaders will need to evolve their skills to maintain their effectiveness.

Ultimately, concludes Volpe, the “desire for empathetic leadership is about being seen and heard, which helps people feel like they belong – leading to better alignment with your company's goals and vision and a stronger product, whatever its function may be.”

Rob Volpe, CEO, Ignite 360

Empathetic leadership – dispelling misconceptions

Rob Volpe, empathy activist and CEO of Ignite 360, believes many people are afraid of empathy because they simply don't understand it. One misconception is that there is only one kind of empathy. “The reality is that there are multiple different forms, notably emotional and cognitive empathy, and it is cognitive empathy that we need to practice in the workplace and much of our daily life,” he says.

Another misconception is that a leader will be seen as weak for practicing empathy. “There is an empathy crisis in society,” he states. “Nearly one-third of American adults report being unable to easily see the point of view of others. We see it play out in both our work and personal lives. Fortunately, we are all born with the ability to have empathy, but we have to have the courage to choose to practice it.”

And for those people who are highly sensitive or empaths, which is a real gift, says Rob, the challenge is to modulate their connection and not let the emotion overcome their cognitive decision-making skills. “The best decisions are made with a combination of head and heart.”

Expert Panel

Rob Volpe is an empathy activist, speaker, business strategist and CEO of Ignite 360, a San Francisco-based consumer insight and strategy firm where he leads a team of insights, strategy and creative professionals elevating human understanding to release untapped potential for the world’s leading brands. He is also the author of Tell Me More About That: Solving the Empathy Crisis One Conversation at a Time

Cheryl Fields Tyler is the founder and CEO of Blue Beyond Consulting, a management consulting firm in San Francisco working with Fortune 500 firms, non-profits, and governments to design and implement large-scale business transformation efforts. She has more than three decades of consulting experience, is a member of the Forbes Business Council, and was honoured as a 2020 For All Leader of the year by the Great Place to Work Institute.

Rhys Cater is a digital leader and heads up the UK business for Stockholm-headquartered Precis Digital, an award-winning, data-driven digital marketing agency that has been voted one of the UK’s best places to work in the Best Workplaces Awards. He manages and scales the UK business, and leads privacy, analytics and marketing ethics strategy for the entire Group. He is a former Google consultant. 


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