Empathy Is The Most Important Leadership Skill According To Research

Empathy Is The Most Important Leadership Skill According To Research

Whenever I read that a leadership skill is the “most important,” I take it with a grain of salt. However, I do think there is something to be said for the role of empathy in the workplace. A recent Forbes.com article by Tracy Brower does a nice job of spelling out the benefits of empathy.

Brower writes, “The reason empathy is so necessary is that people are experiencing multiple kinds of stress, and data suggests it is affected by the pandemic—and the ways our lives and our work have been turned upside down.” She then cites several studies to support her claim. The most intriguing one is a new study at Georgetown University that found workplace incivility is rising, leading to reduced performance and collaboration, deteriorating customer experiences, and increased turnover.

Empathy, on the other hand, can positively impact innovation, engagement, retention, inclusivity, cooperation, work-life balance and mental health. It sounds like a little empathy can go a long way toward creating a healthy workplace.

Brower suggests leaders can demonstrate empathy in two ways:

  • They can consider someone else’s thoughts through cognitive empathy (“If I were in his/her position, what would I be thinking right now?”)
  • They can focus on a person’s feelings using emotional empathy (“Being in his/her position would make me feel _____”).

“But leaders,” she writes, “will be most successful not just when they personally consider others, but when they express their concerns and inquire about challenges directly, and then listen to employees’ responses [italics added]…It’s enough to check in, ask questions and take cues from the employee about how much they want to share.”

I discuss empathy quite a bit in my own work and agree with Brower that “[e]mpathy may not be a brand new skill, but it has a new level of importance…the fresh research makes it especially clear how empathy is the leadership competency to develop and demonstrate now and in the future of work.” In my career, I have heard many stories of the positive effects of empathy and the negative effects of apathy and indifference. If such a powerful driver of engagement, morale and trust exists — for free, no less! — why wouldn’t every leader and manager want to use it with their own people? The answer, I believe, is that showing empathy is still perceived in many organizations as “soft” or “not leader-like.” Perhaps all this new research will succeed in changing some minds.