“Empathy is about standing in someone else’s shoes, feeling with his or her heart, seeing with his or her eyes. Not only is empathy hard to outsource and automate, but it makes the world a better place.” —Daniel H. Pink
By Elizabeth Stincelli, DM
The Big Picture
Harper Lee reminded us, “You never really know a man until you understand things from his point of view, until you climb into his skin and walk around in it.” Empathy is the social and emotional skill that helps us understand and feel the emotions, experiences, intentions, thoughts, and needs of others. It is not a superficial understanding but an understanding at a level that allows us to offer sensitive, insightful, and appropriate support. It is at the core of developing trusting relationships by helping others feel safe and comfortable.
Empathy may be the most important characteristic of a successful leader. As a leader, you must learn to understand and acknowledge how others are thinking and feeling. You can’t give people what they want and need if you don’t know what they want and need. It’s about taking the interests of others as well as your own into consideration. You must be able to put yourself in someone else’s shoes and see things from their perspective. Empathy is about being we-focused rather than I-focused and understanding that, collectively, we are better off when we step outside of our silos. It is easy to get buried in the layers of management and overwhelming amounts of data within our organizations. We get caught up in fighting for our individual needs and forget to look at the bigger picture and true purpose of what we are doing. Empathy directs our focus back to what’s important in the big picture.
Internal organizational empathy
Stephen Covey said, “When you show deep empathy toward others, their defensive energy goes down, and positive energy replaces it. That’s when you can get more creative in solving problems.” Why is empathizing with employees and colleagues so important? People want to work with and be led by someone they trust has an understanding of their thoughts, emotions, and experiences. If you want to be successful as a leader, you must become a reflection of the people you are leading and that requires empathy.
If you really want to get in touch with others, you must learn to actually listen to them. This means more than just hearing the words they say, you must also pay close attention to the signals they are sending. Empathy requires a new level of collaboration, a level that is close and personal. As a leader, you must emphasize value, not just transactions; people, not just processes. Studies show that organizations with happy employees, good organizational culture, and empathetic leaders perform better.
External organizational empathy
David M. Kelley explained, “The main tenet of design thinking is empathy for the people you’re trying to design for. Leadership is exactly the same thing – building empathy for the people that you’re entrusted to help.” Why is it important to have empathy for stakeholders external to your organization? You have to know and understand others before you can truly be of service to them. Having empathy for the wants and needs of your stakeholders isn’t just a superficial exercise; it should be the foundation of your entire business strategy.
Empathy is simple, it’s about understanding and respecting the choices of your clients, suppliers, and other stakeholders so that you can respond to their needs better. You must develop a deep understanding of their motivations; get familiar with what their lives are like on a daily basis. Empathy is about having firsthand knowledge of similar experiences and emotions and using that knowledge to gain a deeper understanding of the world through the eyes of others. It is this understanding that allows you to provide the service that is of the most value.
Reaping the Benefits
What difference would empathy make? For your colleagues? For your clients? For your community? Empathy matters, it lays the foundation for relationships, teamwork, leadership, and innovation. Ben Parr said, “Entrepreneurs may be brutally honest, but fostering relationships with partners and building enduring communities requires empathy, self-sacrifice, and a willingness to help others without expecting anything in return.” Empathy is our ability to identify with what someone else is thinking and feeling and then to respond with the emotion and action that is appropriate. It takes a commitment to really becoming tuned-in to the experiences, thoughts, and emotions of others. Leadership is about making a positive difference and empathy is the tool that brings people together for the benefit of self and others both internal and external to your organization. Empathy brings the big picture into focus.
© 2014 Elizabeth Stincelli
Elizabeth Stincelli is passionate about recognizing and inspiring the leader in each of us. She is the CEO of Stincelli Advisors where she focuses on helping organizations engage employees and improve organizational culture. Elizabeth holds a Doctor of Management degree with an emphasis on organizational leadership.
Learn more about Elizabeth by visiting her website, stincelliadvisors.com and connect with her on Twitter @infinitestin, Google+, and LinkedIn. You can contact her by email at firstname.lastname@example.org.