To fully reap the benefits of empathy, leaders need to act on it

As a round-up of recent studies published by Forbes has shown, empathy is no longer “simply” a key human skill. In fact, when leaders practice it actively, this competence can turn into a powerful tool to drive business results.

Brought to the spotlight by Daniel Goleman and his studies on emotional intelligence, empathy has generally been linked to relational benefits such as teamwork and social awareness. However, new research has demonstrated the constructive effects of empathy on performance-related areas like innovation, retention, and productivity.

The ripple effect of empathy

For instance, empathy is a key driver of innovation as it promotes active listening and a deeper understanding of others’ perspectives. It’s not coincidental that the first phase of design thinking, one of the most advanced approaches for developing new products and services, corresponds to empathizing with potential users. Putting ourselves in other people’s shoes broadens our horizons and encourages us to embrace different ideas

Empathy also fosters diversity, and therefore contributes to forging a more inclusive workplace. 50% of people with empathetic leaders reported their workplace was inclusive, compared with only 17% of those with less empathetic leadership. Empathetic leaders were also shown to help their employees better navigate the demands of work and life: 86% of employees with empathetic leaders said they felt more enabled to successfully juggle their personal, family and work obligations, hence becoming more productive.

In the post-pandemic scenario, these benefits become even more relevant if we look at them from two other perspectives: mental health and retention. In terms of mental health, which Gallup grimly defined “The Next Global Pandemic”, empathy also appears to be a powerful antidote to stress and contribute to positive experiences for individuals and teams. A lot has been said about the Great Resignation spurred by COVID-19 and the subsequent reshuffles of the way we work. Again, empathy has proven a very powerful weapon in retaining employees; 57% of white women and 62% of women of colour said they were unlikely to think of leaving their companies when they felt their life circumstances were respected and valued by their companies.

Leaders should switch to active empathy

So, what can leaders do to demonstrate empathy and reap its full benefits? As Forbes remarks, leaders should no longer limit themselves to considering their employees’ thoughts and feelings using cognitive empathy (“If I were in his/her position, what would I be thinking right now?”) and emotional empathy (“Being in his/her position would make me feel ___”). In fact, the biggest rewards come from applying empathy in a proactive way, for instance expressing concerns and inquiring about their people’s challenges.

Listening to employees’ stories and reading non-verbal cues are two basic key skills to develop to become fully attuned to what our people are experiencing. But they are not enough. To become truly empathetic, leaders should indeed follow up on the collected information and find ways to offer help and support when needed. Discovering that an employee is struggling with being a new parent or a caregiver makes you a good listener. Finding co-created solutions to soften those challenges and turn them into growth opportunities makes you an excellent people leader. And can make all the difference for your company’s performance.