One trait that almost every great leader possesses is the ability to empathize with others. Empathy may or may not come naturally to you, but if you want to raise your leadership abilities to the next level, cultivate a greater sense of empathy. Having empathy for someone does not imply that you agree with them or excuse poor behavior, but it does mean that you deliberately and honestly look at the situation from the other person’s perspective.
Empathy helps create one of the most critical ingredients needed for successful relationships: trust. Anytime that a team is not functioning effectively, the first question a leader should ask is, “How high is the trust between us?” Trust may not be missing, but if it is, there’s nothing a leader can do to compensate for its absence.
What does trust have to do with empathy? Empathy helps create trust in at least two ways. First, if you as the leader can empathize with others, your trust in them is likely to rise. Secondly, when people sense that someone empathizes with them, their trust in that person rises as well. However, take away empathy, and trust can wither like a flower in a drought.
How can a leader cultivate a greater sense of empathy?
- Take time to get to know people. Discover their backgrounds. Learn about their family, their aspirations, and their lives outside of work. Find out how the work that others do lessens or adds to their workload. Dare to ask the question, “How am I, as a leader, impacting their lives? Is it possible that I am, inadvertently, adding unnecessary stress?”
- Listen without being defensive. We often feel crunched for time and this impacts our interactions with people more than we care to admit. Consequently, it is not uncommon for leaders to start formulating their answers, rebuttals, and rationales even while the other person is speaking. The result? We are too busy forming our defense to actually listen. Most people do not expect to get their way on everything, but they do long for someone to listen to them.
- Think humbly about yourself. You may not see the connection between thinking about yourself and feeling empathy for others, but there is a definite connection. We tend to attribute our own successes to the strength of our character, while attributing the success of others to their environment. (“I had to work to get to where I am in life, but, look how easy she had it!”) This inflated perception of our own character crushes the quality of empathy. Thinking a bit more realistically about ourselves frees us to think a bit more empathetically about others.