Empathetic leadership: what really matters

Especially in times of crisis, managers must show sensitivity. But empathy is often misunderstood, which can do more harm than good. What is empathetic leadership based on?

Managers with high emotional intelligence are more successful than colleagues who rather excel through professional brilliance. The psychologist Daniel Goleman has been working intensively on this topic for many years. He describes empathy as one of the most important dimensions of emotionally intelligent leadership. Among other things, this ability is important for retaining talent.

Empathetic behavior means perceiving the motives, feelings and needs of another person and reacting in a way that he or she feels understood, appreciated and supported. The basis for this is a good relationship. In private life, familiarity usually builds up by itself; between employees and supervisors this happens less frequently. Managers need to reach out to team members; this is especially true in hierarchical companies.

If a manager fails to get in touch with the employees, information may not flow to the top. Employees may hide operational or interpersonal issues, and this can impair team performance significantly.

How can supervisors make things better? Basically, there is only an individual answer to this question – depending on your personality, not every solution fits. The following examples cannot replace coaching. However, they show that empathic leadership is based on long-term relationships, from which you can benefit during a crisis. A team’s social capital is created in everyday life, for example with the following behaviors:

  • Seeking informal conversation
    Managers should not leave it to chance which team members they get to know better. ake advantage of everyday opportunities to talk informally, for example in the elevator or in the cafeteria. Avoid the human reflex to focus on communicative and likeable persons. For larger teams, the principle of management by walking around is recommendable: Make routine visits to employees, engage in small talk, gather opinions on work processes or current projects. Do not talk too much – it is time to listen. Important: The visit should not be perceived as a control routine.
  • Back off in dialogue
    Even if you like to speak and others usually hang on your lips: Try not to dominate conversations, neither one-on-one nor in larger groups. Let the others talk as much as possible. You can structure the dialog, ask questions of understanding, repeat statements, but above all let the employees make their point. If you are under time pressure, it is better to reschedule a meeting. When problems are discussed you do not have to offer instant solutions. Often, it may already help your colleagues to let off steam.
  • Show weakness and feelings – carefully balanced
    Leaders should be authentic. This phrase sounds worn out, but that doesn’t mean that managers actually take it to heart. For example, many of them find it difficult to admit mistakes or knowledge gaps. Don’t be afraid of it. As a leader, you may also share your moods with your colleagues. In doing so, you invite others to be more open as well. However, you should know the right balance to ensure that you remain a good role model. Always be constructive and optimistic.

Sometimes empathic leadership is strongly misunderstood. It is not about showing “as much emotion as possible”, “as much closeness as possible”, and certainly not about ingratiation. During a crisis, for example, leaders do no one a favor when they display their frustrations and fears. Of course, it is not easy to stay disciplined in exceptional situations.

Currently, many teams work together in virtual environments, which reduces the opportunities for empathy. In web conferences, it’s hard to perceive body language signals that intuitively reveal how others are doing. When we work at home, we also lack the group dynamics which we benefit from at the workplace. What can help?

  • Maintaining rituals in a virtual environment
    The open-door principle, the weekly walkabout: all of that is currently impossible or very difficult to organize. Instead, managers can set up a digital consultation hour or, for instance, a permanent web conference which anyone can join who wants to chat or to exchange information.
  • Planning real-life encounters
    Colleagues who have been newly hired or a project team which has been recently formed will have a hard time working from home. If possible, office days and personal meetings should be organized so that colleagues can get to know each other.
  • Don’t force anything
    It is a noble cause if you want to do your colleagues a favor in difficult times. However, this can easily go wrong. For example, if the boss invites the staff to an afterwork four-hour whisky tasting via online conference. It would probably be better to ask the team beforehand whether they like the idea of yet another long meeting in front of the screen.

After all, empathy does not mean that managers read minds, but that they are connected to their teams. The decisive factor is how supervisors shape these relationships in everyday life. They must be aware of how much influence they have on the mental well-being of employees. This results in a standard that sound simple but is difficult to meet in practice. In the book “The Office is no Place for a Cattle Ranger” the author puts it as follows: “Always leave people feeling better after an interaction with you than they were feeling before.”

Book recommendation:

Aryeh Brickner: The Office is no Place for a Cattle Ranger – How to Practice Empathetic and Mindful Management

15.06.2020, Grosse-Hornke

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