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Empathic Leadership: Transforming Connections in the Workplace

Principles to strengthen the way you connect and lead.
Marcelo Schnettler
Contributing CIO

Empathy: “The action of understanding, being aware of, being sensitive to, and vicariously experiencing the feelings, thoughts, and experience of another of either the past or present without having the feelings, thoughts, and experience fully communicated in an objectively explicit manner.”

Two of the biggest challenges facing technology leaders today are retention and morale. As technology leaders, we lead some of the most sought-after and well-compensated employees in the professional world. These include software engineers, data scientists, machine learning engineers, and others whose abilities enable the success of multimillion-dollar endeavors and whose absence ensures the possibility of failure.

How can we best ensure that we retain and attract these individuals and, at the same time, provide the most productive work environment? We can do so by leading with empathy. 

Why Practice Empathic Leadership?

The infectious nature of an engaged workforce can spread positivity throughout an organization. This positivity, in turn, positively influences the team’s impact within the larger organization. The phrase “Happy developers write better code!” emphasizes the link between happiness and productivity.

Empathic leadership leads to heightened productivity, greater commitment to corporate objectives, and a sense of mutual dedication within the team. Furthermore, a content workforce produces more and establishes trust, enabling transparent communication when complex matters arise.

Striving for lasting team cohesion allows for a team that remains steadfast in its commitment, facilitating a long-term outlook. This approach also brings personal growth and a sense of fulfillment. Ultimately, pursuing such an approach is not only beneficial but also morally right.

There are three types of empathy, and we need to keep all three in mind when we lead.

Cognitive Empathy

Cognitive empathy, also known as “Perspective Taking”, is putting yourself into someone else’s place, seeing their perspective, and understanding their needs and views. It’s the ability to understand how a person feels and what they might be thinking.

The phrase “…to walk a mile in the other person’s shoes” is an attempt to understand another’s perspective. Cognitive empathy is empathy by thought rather than by feeling.

Cognitive empathy is a crucial part of maintaining adequate communication. It means that you will better understand the language needed to communicate in a manner that will be well understood and received positively. Moreover, it is a pivotal asset during negotiations, enabling you to empathize with others’ perspectives without becoming entangled in their emotions.

The downside of cognitive empathy is that it is possible to show cognitive empathy without sympathy since it does not have an emotional involvement. For example, a clear understanding of the motivations and needs of others may cause an ethical person to use that knowledge to manipulate individuals for their means and toward an unethical end.

Emotional Empathy

Emotional empathy (also known as affective empathy) is the ability to share in the feelings of others. It is when you quite literally feel the other person’s emotions as if you had ‘caught’ the emotions.

It is the embodiment of the phrase “I feel your pain.”

Emotional empathy is probably the first type of empathy that any of us feel as children. An example of emotional empathy is when a parent smiles at a baby, and the baby instinctively smiles back. Or when multiple babies are in a room, one cries, and the others follow. Emotional empathy is empathy by thought and by feeling.

When we practice emotional empathy, we can better understand other people’s emotions and, therefore, better understand what motivates people. It allows us to be human with our fellow workers, not just the blank-faced “management.”

This is vital for those in caring professions, such as doctors and nurses, to respond to their patients appropriately. But it is also essential to you as a leader to react appropriately when team members run into the challenges that life brings.

The downside of emotional empathy is that you can become overwhelmed with emotion. This effect is known as “empathy overload.” Therefore, if you tend to become overwhelmed, it is important to work on maintaining self-control and managing your reactions.

On the other hand, too much self-control will lead to a perception of being hardened and unemotional. At times, this can be a tricky tightrope to walk.

Compassionate Empathy

Compassionate empathy is what many people traditionally think of when they hear the word “empathy.” It goes beyond simply understanding others and sharing their feelings. It involves genuinely sensing another person’s pain or distress and feeling compelled to take action to alleviate their suffering. This form of empathy also encompasses recognizing someone’s emotional state and being motivated to help in any way possible.

We see a tangible example of compassionate empathy every time there is a disaster or tragedy, and people line up to donate blood. Compassionate empathy is empathy by thought, feeling, and action.

As a general rule, people who want or need empathy don’t just need you to understand (Cognitive Empathy), and they certainly don’t need you to feel their pain or, worse, to burst into tears alongside them (Emotional Empathy). Instead, they need you to understand and sympathize with what they are going through and, crucially, either take or help them to take action to resolve the problem. This is compassionate empathy.

Applying Empathic Leadership

Empathic leadership goes beyond merely understanding the needs of your team; it’s about connecting on a profound level by recognizing your journey and applying that understanding. Consider your thoughts, needs, and fears at earlier stages in your career, and use that insight to relate to those you now lead.

What do you know about the person whom you are talking to? What do we have in common that I can directly relate to? Are we both parents? Do we share similar ethnic or cultural backgrounds?

Learn what you have in common to achieve cognitive empathy. Understand that person’s life experience to understand that person better and gain emotional empathy. And when you find out about a personal tragedy, think about a similar event in your life to gain compassionate empathy.

Embrace empathy in all its forms, and you’ll likely find that your relationships and your leadership are strengthened in meaningful and unexpected ways. Whether leading young professionals or coping with a team member’s loss, these principles of empathic leadership can transform the way you connect and lead.

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