Henry Ford once said, "If there is any one secret of success, it lies in the ability to get the other person's point of view and see things from that person's angle as well as from your own."
Ford was a revolutionary in many ways, but his empathetic leadership style was undoubtedly before its time. He was a "people person," well-known for the loyalty he inspired in his workforce and the high productivity that came as a result.
While Ford's approach may have been a rarity in the early 1900s, today's visionaries are making empathy the cornerstone of their leadership models. Take Jacinda Ardern, for example, the prime minister of New Zealand whose party won re-election in a rare landslide victory last autumn. For Ardern, empathy is a key aspect of leadership that in no way reduces her efficacy.
"One of the criticisms I've faced over the years is that I'm not aggressive enough or assertive enough, or maybe somehow, because I'm empathetic, it means I'm weak," Ardern told the New York Times. "I totally rebel against that. I refuse to believe that you can not be both compassionate and strong."
Although some professionals continue to see empathy as more of a "soft skill," many are learning it's crucial to building an aligned, inspired team. In this post, we'll explain how treating employees with compassion fosters a stronger bond with your workforce and increases productivity on your marketing, sales, and customer service teams.
Why Empathy Is the Key to Strong Leadership
It's easy to get confused about what empathetic leadership is and what it is not. Empathy is the ability to understand and share another person's feelings and perspective, and in no way should it be confined to our personal lives.
Empathy motivates employees by making them feel valued.
It's a common misconception that if you show empathy in a leadership role, your team will lose focus and stray away from short- and long-term goals. In reality, empathy is an acquired skill that you should flex in moments of need to help you reach your organization's objectives. It doesn't decrease your drive to achieve, nor does it put yourself in a position of weakness. Rather, it shows employees that you recognize their value and you want them to perform to the best of their abilities.
A recent survey found that 80% of CEOs believe empathy is a key driver of success. Why? Empathetic leadership increases trust in management, prevents toxic work culture, and helps companies retain their best employees. People need to feel valued if you want them to be engaged in the workplace and aligned with your organization's mission. Strong business leaders know that when employees are happy and motivated, their teams are much more likely to succeed.
Maureen Zimmerman, CEO of The Edge Ideas, learned this lesson while managing her company.
Empathy generates goodwill with your business partners.
The COVID-19 pandemic has presented incredible challenges for countries all over the world. Some places have been more successful at combating the virus, while others continue to face uncertainty until a vaccine is widely available.
In April 2020, Taiwan had the lowest incident rate per capita out of the 100 countries affected by COVID-19. Tsai Ing-Wen, the country's first female president, demonstrated a remarkable amount of empathy when she launched the "Taiwan Can Help" campaign as a way to assist countries that were severely impacted by the pandemic. As part of this effort, Taiwan would donate 10 million masks to places like Italy, Spain, France, Germany, and other countries that were the most-affected by COVID-19.
President Tsai said in a press conference, "Over the past months, we have seen countless acts of bravery and sacrifice from medical workers around the world. It's our duty as global citizens to give them our full support."
This act of empathy didn't go unnoticed by other countries. Shortly after President Tsai's announcement, world leaders like Ursula von der Leyen took to Twitter to voice their appreciation.
The European Union thanks Taiwan for its donation of 5.6 million masks to help fight the #coronavirus. We really appreciate this gesture of solidarity. This global virus outbreak requires international solidarity & cooperation. Acts like this show that we are #StrongerTogether.— Ursula von der Leyen (@vonderleyen) April 1, 2020
So, what does this mean if you're a business owner?
This teaches us that empathy creates value both inside and outside your organization. When you ingrain empathy into everything that you do, you can help a lot more people than you may think. And, when you do, this generates good karma for your business. More partners will want to work with you, customers will take notice of your good deeds, and a positive reputation will follow your brand.
Empathy aids career advancement.
No matter what department you're working in, you'll need to embrace empathy if you want to take on a leadership role.
For sales teams, there's a clear benefit to understanding empathy because if you can recognize customer needs, it's much easier to sell to them.
For marketing professionals, the value of developing an "empathetic muscle" is more subtle. But, if you can uncover what people want and need from your brand, you can create content and campaigns that are much more eye-catching and effective.;
Lastly, the benefit of empathy is quite clear for customer service teams. If you don't understand why customers are upset, you'll never fully solve their problems. As a result, people will be quick to turn to your competitors when they realize your agents can't meet their needs.
Even if you're in a leadership position, without empathy you won't know whether your management style is effective until it's too late. Because empathy puts yourself in another person's shoes, it gives you real-time insight into whether your approach is being received positively. This kind of awareness is paramount for managers, whose job is to align their team around a central vision, inspire others, and build employee loyalty.
Empathy fosters a productive work culture.
A positive work culture leads to higher productivity because it gives team members a safe space to express their concerns, removes barriers for growth, and makes your employees more agile and resilient.
One way you can build this type of culture is to create a forum that encourages open conversations and active listening. Active listening not only increases emotional intelligence but also encourages others to train their own empathetic muscle. This includes withholding judgment, which isn't always easy for some people. You need to consciously initiate conversations with people who have different backgrounds, talent sets, and experiences to elicit their unique perspectives. Then, you have to compare their views against your own before you react.
This takes more than practice; it also requires patience, self-management, and self-awareness—all of which takes time and reflection to develop. Having an open forum where employees can practice these skills helps you develop a positive and productive work culture.
For more leadership tips, check out this guide to customer service and support management.