The No. 1 Leadership Skill You Need Today Is Not What You May Think
Rollercoaster markets. Regulatory uncertainty. Supply chain challenges. Inflation pressures. Recession fears. Employee turnover. The Great Resignation. Quiet quitting. “Return to office” reluctance. Work-life balance. A few of the issues that are loading today’s business marketplace with chaos.
Add to the mix people’s personal challenges brought on by racism, ageism, sexism, illness, disease, disability, inequality and more, and today’s business leaders are facing more workplace fire than ever before.
If you’re like many leaders today, you’re wondering how to successfully lead your team through all this fire. With greater vision or courage? More confidence or perseverance? Although those are all necessary leadership skills, the No. 1 skill leaders need today is not what you may think. Although leaders need to be authentic, resilient, creative and gritty, the No. 1 leadership skill leaders need today is empathy.
Why empathy? Because the ability to understand what your team members are going through – to put yourself in their shoes and see the world through their eyes – is key to earning their trust, dedication, loyalty and best effort. Considering what your employees are dealing with, both at work and at home, individually and as a team, can help you make decisions that work best – and ensure the best outcomes – for everyone.
Showing your team members that you care about them can help increase their motivation – and your success. “Having empathy for others helped me get teams fired up to reach higher, to go through walls,” says Laura Desmond, venture capitalist, board director for Adobe and DoubleVerify, and former CEO of Starcom MediaVest, the world’s largest global media agency.
With empathy, leaders can engage in a give and take of inspiration with talented people, building a team that works together to achieve a shared mission. Not intimidated by working with people who are smarter or better than them in some way, effective leaders take pride in helping others become their best selves. “You don’t have to be the smartest person in the room,” says Winnie Park, CEO of fashion retailer Forever 21, and board director for EXPRESS and Dollar Tree Stores. “When the boss says ‘I don’t know. What do you think?’ it’s very empowering for her people.”
We enhance our leadership skill by using empathy to notice that which moves us, upsets us, affects us, or makes us feel passionate. Taking action, no matter how big or small, keeps the fire burning within us and ignites a spark in others. Leaders can transform apathy to empathy by the sheer force of their passion. The more leaders can motivate themselves and others, the greater success they can achieve.
Empathy fuels your team’s purpose. “It’s very hard to lead when you don’t care about people,” says Talita Ramos Erickson, chief legal and compliance officer, chief transformation officer and D & I board adviser for Barilla Group. “As one of my colleagues said to me about the pandemic, ‘We’re all in the storm, but we’re not all in the same boat.’ If you’re a leader, you need to acknowledge that everyone is in a different boat. That’s empathy.”
When you view people and situations through a more compassionate lens, you can unite your team around a shared vision – and that’s when the leadership magic happens. That’s because empathy helps with employee satisfaction, growth, innovation, productivity and retention. People in today’s workforce realize that they have choices when it comes to where and how they work. Employees are choosing to work for employers they trust. When people feel heard, understood, included and valued, they’re more invested in the company’s success. This reduces employee churn – saving you time, effort and money – and improves your company culture.
The 2021 EY Empathy in Business Survey, which tracks how empathy affects leaders, employees and innovation in the workplace, confirms this. “Our research finds that empathy is not only a nice-to-have, but the glue and accelerant for business transformation in the next era of business,” notes Steve Payne, EY Americas Vice Chair – Consulting. “Empathy’s ability to create a culture of trust and innovation is unmatched, and this previously overlooked trait must be at the forefront of businesses across all industries.”
According to the EY survey:
- 89 percent of employees feel that empathy leads to better leadership.
- 88 percent believe that empathetic leadership inspires positive change.
- 87 percent feel that empathy enables trust among employees and leaders.
- 85 percent report that empathetic leadership increases employee productivity.
Perhaps most tangible of all the benefits empathy brings to the workplace is how it impacts an organization’s bottom line. By increasing employee satisfaction and decreasing churn, and by spurring innovation and collaboration, you can reduce talent acquisition, onboarding and training expenses, and boost creativity, efficiency and revenue. “I put myself in others’ shoes and that affects how I react,” says Sarah Hofstetter, president of Profitero and board director for Campbell Soup Company.
Having empathy does not mean that you aren’t serious or that you’re a pushover. Success lies in the balance: Radiating light and compassion while retaining a strong inner resolve is a superpower many of us develop without even knowing we are honing this skill. That’s because we have gone through fire and come out on the other side of it stronger.
Leaders aren’t just born, they are made. And often, it’s the challenges we overcome, the chaos we work through and the fires we battle that forge the inner strength it takes to lead and inspire. And that inner strength radiates like a beacon.
Leading with empathy is a powerful emotional intelligence skill. But equally necessary is the inner strength it takes to manage the not-so-nice stuff. Mistakes, attitudes, dilemmas, crises – chaos that needs to be handled and resolved.
That’s when inner strength is needed most. Leaders need not only to inspire but also to overcome. They have to make the tough calls – and clean up the messes, too. Leaders must take the bad along with the good, and that’s what the strong inner core is for.
Setting boundaries around empathy can help you strike the balance that works for you and your organization. Ensuring that you are fair and consistent, so everyone knows where the guardrails are, can lead to the openness and transparency that is wanted and needed in today’s workplace.
So, how can you foster a culture of empathy in your organization and successfully lead your team through the fire? A few ideas:
- Engage with your team members regularly – on both work- and non-work-related topics.
- Schedule one-on-one meetings with associates to connect on a weekly basis.
- Arrange team-building opportunities to get to know employees in different settings or in different ways.
- Create a safe and inclusive environment, but don’t just talk the talk. Walk the walk with actionable steps like enabling feedback (anonymous or not) and welcoming constructive criticism, new ideas, opinions and perspectives.
- Ask team members what they think, then incorporate their thoughts into your decision-making process. Always be listening and learning.
- Encourage employees to be curious and always be learning by scheduling continuing education opportunities so they can keep growing.
- Invite open communication by actively participating in candid and honest discussions. If you don’t always have the answers, it’s OK to say so. Show your humanity.
Empathy aligned with inner strength can enable you to amass a community of loyal employees, colleagues, customers and collaborators. It’s striking the balance between sunshine and strength that makes a good leader; the kind of leader who inspires everyone to bring out their best selves every day. With empathy, you can lead your team through the fire and come out on the other side, stronger than ever before.
Written by Elisa A. Schmitz.
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