In my many years of leadership, I have learned that empathy is the key to an equitable and all-inclusive workplace. I have compared this quality to other leadership behaviors including sympathy and apathy in case-control studies.
Empathetic leaders stand out as being the most effective at building diverse and inclusive workplaces. Empathy and sympathy may be closely related, but they are not the same. Here is where many leaders get it wrong—and lead from sympathy or apathy—which cannot build an inclusive working environment.
Empathy vs. Sympathy
Empathy is an ability to put yourself in the position of another and to understand what they are experiencing. Empathy is a higher quality that goes beyond feeling sorry or even saying sorry. As opposed to saying “Oh i’m so sorry, that sucks,” a boss that leads with empathy takes more time to think about what their employee is going through. They think about how the experience is affecting their work and relationships and try to imagine how the worker feels in the situation.
Sympathy is the problem with modern leadership. Sympathetic leaders present false inclusivity. For cohesive teams and success in achieving company goals, business leaders ought to rethink the way they react to their team’s problems. How many times have you heard a leader say: “I’m sorry”, “I hear you”, “let me just remove the burden”, or “It’s hard, I get it”.
Sympathy is not an utterly negative quality in the workplace. Still, where there is toxic sympathy, employees will have no accountability to get the work done, which creates less inclusion by removing tasks and stunting people from reaching their full potential. How can organizations groom empathy instead of sympathy among leaders? And how can leaders learn this quality which is in itself a leadership skill?
Understanding the differences between empathy and sympathy is a good place to start. If you are an empathic leader, you truly try to understand your employees’ emotions, and their experiences as they were your own. Empathy, as opposed to sympathy, is not pity or paternalism – “I’ll take care of it” and “I’ll get it done.” It is a shared experience that is not driven by bias. Whereas sympathy marginalizes further, empathy brings bosses and workers closer together.
Empathy and emotional intelligence
Every leader has a different level of empathy. In the workplace, there is a correlation between empathy and emotional intelligence. They get everyone passionate and motivated about organizational goals—and they champion equality, representation, and business efficiency.
Empathetic leaders present real inclusivity. During performance evaluations and reviews, these are the leaders that would be concerned with an employee’s poor performance, but why they performed poorly—leading to positive outcomes in future performance and job satisfaction.
Empathetic leadership isn’t simply solving people’s problems or making them feel better, but working with them to find a way forward together. When a team member comes to you with a problem, instead of pitying them or letting them struggle, you are more likely to say “I’ve been down here before, I know the way out.”
Empathy fosters compassion and this empowers leaders to take action and create opportunities for both business and for individuals. One aspect of this quality is good listening skills. Taking time to listen and understand your employees creates psychological safe spaces, or channels where feedback flows freely, and without intimidation.
Resilience and empathy go hand-in-hand. Leaders who understand this. They slow down to connect with each individual in their teams. They acknowledge their mistakes and failures and possible contribution to an employees’ suffering. This leads to the creation of trust and fewer mistakes down the road. Empathetic leadership is servant leadership.
Apathy and poor results
Apathy is perhaps the darkest of qualities that should not exist in the workplace. Apathetic leaders are not inclusive. In my journey as CEO, I have experienced the dilemma of being there for my employees and focusing on numbers, results, and the tactical operations of the business. I was dictatorial, forceful, and lacked emotion and care. This culminated in the alienation of my people and poor team-performance.
In such a work environment, work-life and home-life are separate; in this context, life situations are viewed as excuses. employees are told, “put your feelings aside and get the work done,” leading to a culture of fear. Great leaders acknowledge their apathy and instead rely on open dialogue to build empathy, and overcome adversity.
Embracing empathy and leading from a place of compassion is transformative to the energy of your workplace—and it is the key to better performance and higher productivity.