Empathy in Leadership: Separating the Goods From the Greats

Written by
redpepper Staff
redpepper Staff
multiple authors
Updated on
May 29, 2024 3:39 PM
How to hone and apply it effectively.

A few months ago I started thinking about my redbit — a 10min TED Talk-style presentation all redpeppers are expected to give once a year, to educate the company on a topic we’re passionate about. The idea of empathy was at the forefront of my mind. However, for some reason, I kept pushing it aside. This was during a transitional (read: extremely busy) time for me — my manager was out on medical leave, I had recently taken on some new role responsibilities, and I was taking four new interns under my wings.

A couple days passed, and I decided to sit down and think through why I was so resistant to choose this topic. Then I realized—empathy was something I was really struggling with. I was so focused on myself and checking off my work load that I wasn’t fully present for my team. I had some leading to do, and I needed to step up to the challenge. So, instead of continuing to resist this topic, I decided to lean into it, and unpack it.

Defining Empathy

Through my research, I found that empathy often gets confused with sympathy. So let’s be clear, we can sympathize with someone, we can feel sorrow for what they’re going through — but that is not going to connect us with that person. Empathy, on the other hand, causes us to react, and for us to feel with that human— it allows to truly understand their emotions, needs, and thoughts.

Why is it so important in leadership?

Empathy is one of the core competencies of emotional intelligence, and is a critical leadership skill. By truly understanding the people we lead, we help them achieve their dreams and goals. Because when employees feel their manager truly knows them, they feel cared for and heard — their trust and creativity increase, and they become more willing to share their ideas. They feel safe and more fulfilled. They know they matter and that their work has purpose.

“Nearly 90% of the difference between outstanding and average leaders is attributable to emotional factors, not intellectual acumen.”

- Daniel Goleman, psychologist and past writer for the New York Times

Empathy & Neuroscience

Empathy is not something most of us are just born with or born without. We actually have physical structures in our brains called mirror neurons that help us understand others’ experiences and feelings. They were first discovered in the early 90s by two Italian researchers who were studying monkeys—and found that a mirror neuron fires an action potential when a monkey either observes or executes a specific action. So in the graphic below we see that the action potential looks the same BOTH when the monkey grabs the ball himself, and when he watches a human perform the same action.

This is why when we watch someone stub their toe, or get a paper cut, we actually feel it a little bit. Our mirror neurons are reflecting the feelings of the other person.

Empathy is Like a Pool of Water

While we’re all capable of empathy, we still need to work to develop it. We can kind of think of empathy like a pool of water. Our pool is full when everything is going great for us, and we’re feeling relaxed and in control. At this time, we are much more likely to reach out to our team to check-in, see how they’re doing.

But our pool gets low when we are stressed, busy, or overworked. And consequently we are so focused on ourselves, and what we need to do, that we spend less time empathizing and connecting with others. Our relationships quickly begin to suffer.

This is a problem, because at most jobs we don’t work alone. It takes so many different people, doing so many specific roles, to make an organization run and be successful — so we need to keep this skill at the forefront.

Honing Empathy

Luckily, there are little things we can do, that overtime will make a big impact.

1. Be curious

We need to truly know our team members, and learn about their passions in and outside of work. It will help us support them in their careers, and also their lives. It will help us know how to motivate them. It will allow them to feel like real people — not just worker-bees.

Pro-tip: Host regular team off-sites. Learn what your team likes and go bond outside of work. It will help you feel closer, more connected, and work better as a team.

2. Develop self-awareness

We need to know ourselves—both our strengths and our weaknesses. The more connected we are to our own emotions, the greater our ability to adapt and feel for our team. At redpepper we use the DiSC assessment to help with this—a tool to understand our workplace priorities and preferences.

Pro-tip: Leaders give plenty of feedback. But how often do we ask for it in return? Every once in a while, check in with your teammates to see how effectively you’re communicating.

3. Show that you care

When having conversations one-on-one or in group meeting — whenever it’s possible, we need to eliminate distractions. We should aim to make the person we’re speaking to feel like the most important person in the room when we’re speaking to them.

And before we immediately react to something that is said — feedback, a question, whatever it may be — pause. Before responding, we should think: “how will this person be affected by what I’m about to say, and what is my response really going to mean to them?”

Pro-tip: If you’re having a 1:1 meeting, make at least half of it tech-free — no phones or computers. Think about ways you can prepare for group meetings ahead of time, so the meeting can be tech-free and more efficient.

4. Lift your people up

A big part of empathy-forward leadership is helping our employees’ grow, while keeping their passions engaged. This not only makes for a stronger, more fulfilled team, but strengthens our relationships in an invaluable way. Help them find opportunities to continue to develop in their role and beyond.

Pro-tip: When people feel stagnant, they start to feel unsatisfied. Good leaders negate that by continually finding opportunities for their team to keep developing. Give your employee a dedicated speaking role in a client share or meeting, give them an opportunity to present their work.

Keep Moving

Empathy isn’t something we just practice for two weeks, and then become experts—we have to continue to make time and space for it every day. And the fact is we all get busy, but holding ourselves accountable, and getting into the rhythm of regular, candid conversations, conversations with your team members — is the difference between a good leader and a great one.

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