"Empathy with people is a key leadership quality — and it’s one many leaders don't have"
What is empathy?Many people confuse empathy with sympathy, but the two are different in an important way. Sympathy means agreeing with or relating to the feelings someone else has about a particular situation. But empathy goes deeper. It means that, whether or not you agree with someone, you can understand what they are feeling and how that affects their perception and needs.
Empathy means you have the ability to put yourself in the other person’s shoes and put their needs ahead of yours when necessary.
There’s a business stereotype that doesn’t seem to want to die of the ruthless go-getter whose dogged pursuit of his goals leaves no room for him to worry about anyone but himself. But the truth is, sooner or later in business (and in life) everyone must rely on the relationships and connections they have established. The most successful leaders don’t operate in a vacuum; they rely on a support system to achieve their success.
Think of the captain who is the last to leave a sinking ship, or the unwritten rule that lowest ranking Marines are first in line at the mess tent, while their commanders eat last. That kind of leadership is about an innate understanding of putting the needs of others above your own.
Can empathy be taught?There’s another longstanding myth that human beings are biologically wired to think only of ourselves, but science shows that’s simply untrue. We do have a reptile brain that promotes that “me first” thinking, but we also have something that sets us apart. Humans are social creatures, and our brains produce pleasure hormones, serotonin and oxytocin, to actually reward us for helping others.
Our brains actually reward us for practising empathy, and so it is definitely a skill that can be cultivated, not just an innate personality trait.
How to cultivate empathy:
- Listen more than you speak.
- Shift the focus from the story in your mind to the actual message being presented.
- Take a personal interest in others.
- Practice putting the needs of others above your own in the workplace.
- Become the other person.