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Research suggests empathy is the most important leadership skill

Empathy has always been an essential skill for leaders, but research is demonstrating its importance for everything from innovation to retention. Although great leadership requires a multitude of skills to empower engagement, happiness and performance, empathy tops the list of what leaders must get right.

The impact of stress

Data suggests the effect that the pandemic has had on our lives and work is increasing the kinds of stress we are dealing with, this makes empathy even more necessary.

A global study conducted by Qualtrics has found that 42% of people have experienced a decline in their overall mental health, with 67% of people experiencing an increase in stress. A study in Occupational health science found that when we feel stressed at work, our sleep is compromised which can mean stress spills over into our personal lives which can affect relationships and parenting.

Performance, Turnover and Customer Experience. A study published in the Academy of Management Journal found when people are on the receiving end of rudeness at work, their performance suffers and they are less likely to help others. And a new study at Georgetown University found workplace incivility is rising and the effects are extensive, including reduced performance and collaboration, deteriorating customer experiences and increases turnover.

Empathy supports positive outcomes

When we go through difficult times, contend with burnout or struggle to achieve enjoyment at work, empathy can be a powerful remedy and create positive experiences for both individuals and teams.

A study by Catalyst interviewed 889 employees to find that empathy has compelling positive effects - 61% of employees reported they were more likely to be innovative when leaders were empathetic, 76% reported they were more engaged, 50% reported they felt included within their workplace, and 86% reported they had a healthy work-life balance. The study found when leaders were perceived as more empathetic, people reported greater levels of mental health.

Cooperation is also a factor. According to a study published in Evolutionary Biology, when empathy was introduced into decision making, it increased cooperation and even caused people to be more empathetic. Empathy fostered more empathy.

Wired for Empathy

Empathy also seems to be instinctive. A study by Lund University suggests that children as young as two displayed an understanding that others hold different perspectives than their own.

In addition, a study from the University of Virginia discovered that when the subjects saw their friends experience threats, the part of the brain affected was the same part affected when they were personally threatened. The individuals felt for their friends as emotively as they did for their circumstances, which makes empathy an essential part of our human condition at work and in our personal lives.

Leading with Empathy

There are two ways that leaders can demonstrate empathy. Firstly is cognitive empathy by considering someone else’s thoughts, asking themselves the question of “what would I be thinking if I were in his/her position right now?” Then there is emotional empathy “How would being in his/her position make me feel?” The most successful leaders will not only consider these feelings of others but also express concern and seek information directly about challenges their employees are facing. There is not a need for leaders to be mental health experts to demonstrate compassion and care, it is enough to ask questions and take suggestions from employees.

For great leaders, a thorough understanding of someone’s situation should turn into action to help. It is appreciating a person’s point of view and engaging in a healthy debate that builds to a better solution. It is considering a team member’s perspectives and making a new recommendation that helps achieve greater success. As the popular saying goes, people may not remember what you say, but they will remember how you made them feel.

In Summary

Empathy contributes to positive relationships and organizational cultures and it also drives results. Empathy may not be a brand new skill, but it has a new level of importance and the fresh research makes it especially clear how empathy is the leadership competency to develop and demonstrate now and in the future of work.

Empathy is so important to us here at Lemon that we have made it one of our key brand values. We feel that with empathy as a fundamental part of our business, we can provide our staff with an amazing place to work, our clients with the best outsourcing partner they could ask for and our clients customers the fantastic customer service that they deserve on every single call that we take. Empathy fosters empathy. Read our values here.

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