Why Empathetic Leadership Is Necessary

You’ve likely heard of the golden rule, but have you ever heard of the platinum rule? It states that you should treat others as they want to be treated. In doing so, you’re practicing empathy.

With centuries of systemic racism and months of quarantine weighing heavily on our collective conscious, now is a vital time for everyone, and leaders especially, to familiarize themselves with what empathy looks like in practice.

On the recent NextGen online training, Why Empathetic Leadership Is Essential, Allison Wise, Diversity and Inclusion Program Director in the Outreach, Diversity & Inclusion Center at the Office of Personnel Management (OPM) shared thoughts and tips on empathetic leadership in our current moment.

“Empathy is the ability to really understand the feelings and emotions of other people,” said Wise. While this is a simple concept in theory, a deeper understanding of what empathy really means is necessary for leaders who want to make it a part of their management style.

Wise identified the three types of empathy that we need to be aware of, which are:

Cognitive: The ability to understand another person’s perspective.

Emotional: The ability to feel what someone else might be feeling.

Compassionate: The ability to sense what another person needs from you.

With these three dimensions of empathy in mind, leaders can begin to form a picture of how they can incorporate it into their day-to-day management.

“Acknowledgement is the first step to empathy,” said Wise. Acknowledging how someone else might feel lets them know that they are valued and respected, and this is the first step to creating an empathetic culture in your office or organization.

Wise highlights the importance of listening to understand rather than simply listening to listen. By showing kindness and interest, and by committing to understanding and helping, you can foster the right kind of environment in your workplace.

“Bring humanity to the workplace,” said Wise. “Put people before projects.”

Especially now, putting people before projects is one of the most powerful things you can do as a leader. With so many outside stressors in our current world, it is important to take an interest in how someone is doing as a human being and not simply as an employee.

Wise recommends setting aside time to check in with those that you manage from a personal perspective, and listening to their concerns with an open mind. You might not have all the answers, but ask how you can help, take notes, listen to issues that are raised, and let people know that you’ll follow up with them and do whatever it takes for them to feel that their concerns are being properly addressed.

Empathy can be difficult at times, but as a leader it’s important to be able to be vulnerable, and even uncomfortable. Being uncomfortable often means that you are learning something new or seeing something from a new perspective, and ultimately that is good for both you and your organization.

Empathetic leadership can improve productivity, morale and loyalty. But more importantly, it can provide comfort and support to those who need it. Take some time in the next week and in the coming months to commit to incorporating as much empathy as you can into your leadership style.

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