Empathetic Leadership Supports Diverse, Equitable Workforces

Empathy is a quality that allows individuals to recognize and share the feelings others have. In interpersonal relationships, empathy is essential and is often the first step towards helping those in need or forming bonds with others.

Experts believe there are different types of empathy.

  • Affective empathy is a trait where we pick up or mirror the emotions someone else is feeling
  • In cognitive empathy, we understand someone else’s emotions
  • In emotional empathy, which is also sometimes called compassionate empathy, we feel compassion for the feelings of another person

In the workplace, prioritizing empathy as a leader can create healthier and more inclusive workplaces.

What Is Empathetic Leadership?

An empathetic leader is one who can understand and feel what those around them feel. Far from being guided by emotions, this leader is able to make clear-headed decisions and take action based on a deeper understanding of their team and everyone he or she works with.

In a workplace, this can appear as a leader who takes the time to check in with a team and who works to meet teams where they are. If an individual at the company is grieving, for example, an empathetic leader may offer not just accommodation but also commiseration and an open door in case the individual needs someone to talk to. An empathetic leader sees team members as whole people, with emotions, and treats them that way.

How Can People Practice Empathetic Leadership?

Research has shown that we all have mirror neurons in our brains, which are physical structures that help us feel empathy. While we tend to think of empathy as something that an empathetic leader “just has,” in many cases it is possible to learn how to be an empathetic leader. Here’s how:

  • Make empathy a priority. Consider how you might measure empathy & where it could show up in your workplace. Decide you will choose empathy as a leader in your organization & then define what that might look like, specifically.
  • Spend time with others. One of the fundamental ways to build empathy is to spend time with everyone in your business, asking questions & listening.
  • Observe. Everyone has a bias, & it can be easy to make assumptions based on biases. For example, if you observe someone standing with arms folded, you may assume the person is impatient or unhappy when in fact that may be a relaxed pose. Observe closely, but avoid reaching conclusions about what you are observing too early.
  • Practice full presence. Distraction can make it harder to focus on the people around you, notice their reactions, & listen deeply. Avoid multitasking & when you are speaking to someone, focus on their words & ideas fully. Meditation & breathwork can also help individuals stay present & in the moment.
  • Don’t force it. The empathetic leader is one who shows genuine interest in others, & the best way for that to happen is gradually & naturally, especially if you haven’t focused on empathy before. Make space for genuine conversations, listen, ask questions, & keep working towards empathy.
  • Get coaching. Coaching in emotional intelligence may be able to help if empathy is not showing up in leadership. A coach can be especially useful in pointing out biases or blocks a leadership team may not have noticed.

There is one final caveat about empathy in the workplace: research has found that neurodiversity can impact expression and how people empathize with others. Contrary to stereotypes, neurodiversity allows for deep empathy, but it’s still important to keep in mind that individuals can express and interpret empathy differently.

One way to make your journey to empathetic leadership more inclusive, including for neurodiverse team members, is to define “what is an empathetic leader?” for your workplace. Discussing this question with leadership and your team can help you create a definition that works for your specific situation. You may find that such a leader may not necessarily understand a person’s emotions just by glancing at their facial expressions, for example, but does check in regularly, or asks for feedback.

Another way to look more broadly and inclusively at empathy is to evaluate strengths and weaknesses overall. Brené Brown’s values quiz The Wholehearted Inventory instrument, can help uncover positive attributes you can build on as a leader.

What Are Some Real-World Examples of Empathetic Leadership?

It’s useful to look at examples of leaders who are focusing on empathy. One good example is Satya Nadella, the CEO of Microsoft, who examines the unstated needs and emotions of customers when developing products. Nadella credits this empathy with some of the innovations at Microsoft in the past five years.

Amid soaring inflation in 2022, business owner and owner of the Dallas Mavericks,

Mark Cuban, created an online pharmacy to tackle high medication prices. When asked about why he created the pharmacy, Cuban spoke from a deep sense of empathy for consumers: “it’s just wrong, that people have to choose between eating, you know, their rent, and taking their medications.” Cuban was able to put himself in the position of a struggling person, even though he is a billionaire, and as a result of this empathy, he created an online business that can help.

How Can Empathetic Leadership Support DEI At Companies, & How Does That Help Companies Do Well?

An empathetic leader is one who sees and listens more deeply, which can help expose biases and issues. A leader in tune with workplace culture, for example, may notice and feel the pain of workers who feel excluded or held back by a less diverse or less inclusive workplace. Noticing this, a leader may be encouraged to make changes, and studies have shown that diverse and inclusive workplaces attract more talent and get better financial results than more homogeneous businesses.

There is also evidence that apart from supporting DEI at companies, empathetic leadership itself can be great for business. Belinda Parmar has found that companies ranked in the top 10 for empathy outperform the least empathetic competitors by 50%.

How Can Diversio Help?

Learning how to be an empathetic leader is a great start, and once you start developing empathy it’s not uncommon to see changes that need to be made. Diversio can help in two ways: first, by gathering metrics about your company so you understand who your team is and, secondly, by helping you make changes to reduce some of the pain caused by inequity in the workplace. Diversio can help you build an empathetic workplace by lessening the experience and pain of exclusion.

As the world’s first AI-based DEI Platform, Diversio makes it possible to gather data about inclusivity and diversity in your organization and compare it to your industry. Diversio’s AI-powered DEI Dashboard provides a useful way to track your progress while the Recommendation Engine™ offers suggestions to improve your efforts. In addition, Diversio offers certification, DEI training, and other solutions. Try a demo today to see the difference Diversio can make in your Diversity, Equity, and Inclusion initiatives.

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