Why it’s important as a leader to be empathetic…
I have heard and read so many definitions for Empathy but the one that resonates with me is: the capacity to share what someone else is feeling, such as having butterflies in your stomach when your very nervous team mate has to do a presentation in front of the whole organisation.
Neuroscience has classed Empathy into three components:
Emotional Empathy - sharing someones feelings and matching their emotional state, like feeling of loss when a friend loses a close one.
Cognitive Empathy (theory of mind or mentalizing)— the capacity to think about and understand another person’s feelings.
Compassion - motivation to do something about someone’s suffering.
Empathy is fundamental for forming productive relationships with the ability to relate to people more effectively. In some instances, empathy can cause emotional distress and it is naturally biased toward someone you consider to be close to you.
Fortunately empathy can be learned and it alleviates conflict. Our core ability to empathise depends on our own internal state and also our perception of what someone else is feeling.
People that lack empathy show abnormal neural connections and neural activity in areas of the brain associated with empathy. Research has shown that to activate empathy some level of concern for the distress of others is necessary but when the distress is excessive, individuals tend to avoid rather than engage. This is probably why some one you regarded as being a close friend avoids you when you need them most.
When stressful or painful emotions are experienced, empathy is painful - which is why some people avoid such feelings. In certain professions, such as medicine and law enforcement, they tend to suffer from excessive burnout and stress or they may be at the other extreme where they have become desensitised and show little empathy. A more universal problem is the fact that empathy is biased - where you generally have more empathy for your family and people you consider to be friends than other people.
This is why the problem of in-group and out-group does not just apply to differences in race and ethnicity but also amongst rival teams in organisations but worse so even within teams. This is also important in client relationships with entrepreneurs.
Compassionate people tend to offer help to others more often than those who are upset by others distress.
Compassion (motivational empathy) is defined as a feeling of concern and includes the motivation to help others. The ability to understand facial expressions and other nonverbal expressions in others helps with developing empathy. A part of the brain called the fusiform specialises in decoding facial expressions.
People who believe that effort could change one’s level of empathy are more likely to try to take the perspective of someone from a social out-group than those who think of empathy as a stable, unchanging trait (Zaki, Dweck and Karina Schumann).
Another school of research showed that group norms can inspire people to be more helpful.
The top part of the Anterior Cingulate Cortex (ACC) alerts other parts of the brain of harm and responds when there is a threat of interpersonal rejection. Damage to the ACC results in decreased empathy and maternal behaviour. When we or people we love experience pain or social ridicule, the ACC activates.
We have all felt the empathy of a caring friend or teacher and also been possibly upset by it’s absence from friends or a boss. A lot of leaders feel that showing empathy is unprofessional as people are “just meant to get on with it”. Empathy does have it’s place in the workplace and its about thoughtfully considering peoples feelings along with other factors you have to consider when making conscious decisions. I have witnessed two managers deal with change so differently and the outcome was no surprise. An organisation I worked with were facing financial issues which led to redundant jobs in most departments. This led to a lot of anxiety as you would expect. One manager got her team together and explained the situation to them and promised that she will do everything in her power to protect them and always keep them informed. A second manager called his team together and had a rant about the senior leadership and how the organisation was trying to get rid of people that they did not like. The first manager had empathy while the second manager was too self absorbed to think about his anxious team’s feelings. The first manager thought about her team’s feelings and tried to reassure them with her words. The result was the first manager’s team supported each other and remained strong with all the talented people staying on and some taking higher positions whilst the demoralised second team literally lost all the employees including the manager.
To improve staff retention, morale and productivity, leaders must be empathetic and learn to consciously listen to the opinions of their team members. In this current world of globalisation, empathy is crucially vital to ensure you as a leader or entrepreneur are able to understand the multi-cultural biases of people you work with as employees or clients. For example the way people from different cultures communicate is quite different and you need to remain alert to understand or sense the body language by reading between the lines and understanding the unspoken words. Empathy is also vitally important to enable leaders give effective feedback the right way. Leaders with empathy use their knowledge of their employees to improve their organisations in subtle ways that are very crucial for growth.
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