Today, empathy is a fundamental skill for effective business leaders.

In its simplest form, empathy is the ability to recognise emotions in others, and to understand other people's perspectives on a situation. At its most developed, empathy enables you to use that insight to improve someone else's mood and to support them through challenging situations.

Empathy is often confused with sympathy, but they are not the same thing. Sympathy is a feeling of concern for someone, and a sense that they could be happier. Unlike empathy, sympathy doesn't involve shared perspective or emotions.

Empathy is a key component of Emotional Intelligence, a critical requirement of all leaders. There are 3 types of empathy:

Cognitive: I understand what you must be feeling or thinking but I’m not emotionally invested in it. I’m rational and neutral about the situation.

Emotional: I share your feelings. I understand why you feel like you do, I’m feeling it too. You are connecting with this individual, authentically. This kind of empathy can generate a culture of honesty and openness.

Compassionate: I share your feelings and I have a plan to work through them. You not only understand and share their feelings but are looking to actively reduce them.

Beyond contributing to your EQ, empathy has also been shown to drive innovation, both of which are essential tools in any leader’s arsenal. By investing in someone else’s perspective, lived experience and emotions, you are stretching and expanding your own perspectives.

Additionally, an empathetic and supported workforce will serve their customers well. Imagine the impact on resolving customer issues and influencing the customer experience.

According to Businessolver’s 2017 Workplace Empathy Monitor report, empathy has a direct impact on employee productivity, loyalty, and engagement.

  • 77% of workers would be willing to work more hours for a more empathetic workplace; meanwhile, 60% would actually accept a slashed salary for the same.
  • 92% of HR professionals note that a compassionate workplace is a major factor for employee retention.
  • 80% of millennials noted that they would leave their current job if their office became less empathetic. 66% of Baby Boomers also shared this sentiment.

So how can we develop your empathy, as it relates to leadership, in the workplace? Here are 3 simple steps that you can take:

Listen and observe

Be present in the moment, observing the individual’s body language and what they are saying, instead of focusing on how you might respond. Easy in theory, but in practice it can be challenging to not seek to “fix” or control the interaction. Don’t assume you know how the person is feeling. Even if your assumptions turn out to be correct, there is far more to be learned if you simply listen and observe first.

Be present in the moment and the person

Distractions are a plenty in the office. It is all too easy to let the buzz of an email notification shift your focus from your meeting to your phone. There will always be a situation to resolve, an email to read, a deadline to achieve. This leads us away from being present and into a mindset of “fixing” the person or problem as quickly as possible.

Ask the right questions

Exercising empathy for your team means not only being a good listener but also asking the right questions to get to the root of their issues. When you ask thoughtful questions you’re saying, “I see you and I hear you. What can I do to help? How are we going to take care of this?” Questions asked of your employees should be specific rather than generic. When someone is being vulnerable, the least we can do is seek to understand the whole story.

Striving to create an empathetic workplace is a marathon, not a sprint. Empathy is a skill to be developed. Consistently showing up and holding space for someone’s concerns will ultimately lead to influence, respect and a more connected workplace. What was previously thought of as a soft skill is now understood as a non negotiable for highly engaged leaders of business.