When coming up with a list of key leadership skills, it's not uncommon to see phrases like "good communicator" or "strong decision-making abilities" come up. While such attributes are certainly important, another vital trait is often overlooked: empathy.
Like many words today, its true meaning has been hijacked. My company LearnLoft defines empathy in the EO Leadership Report as how well you are able to identify with your team to understand their feeling and perspectives, in order to guide your actions.
1. Empathy fuels productivity and performance.
An empathetic outlook has been found to significantly improve productivity. A comprehensive study published in the Journal of Applied Psychology found that empathetic interventions could dramatically increase productivity in a wide range of environments.
One aspect of the study had lifeguards read stories about how their work helps others to increase their "perceptions of social impact and social work." The study found that those who read these stories had a noteworthy increase in "job dedication and helping behavior." Similarly, university fundraiser participants were able to double how many donations they obtained when empathetic stories were shared.
Russ Ruffino, founder and CEO of Clients on Demand, calls empathy "the key to great marketing."
As he explains, "When everything is said and done, that's what your clients want -- to be understood. They want to know you understand their problems and concerns on a deep, personal level, and that you have the answers they need. The key to creating trust is to show clients that you know exactly how they feel, and how to fix what's wrong. When you can do that, everything else is simple."
These same principles are just as important when leading your internal team. Your team will be more productive and perform better when they know you understand them versus just being another employee.
2. Empathy increases happiness in the workplace.
Happiness in the workplace matters -- for both you and your employees. For many, feeling appreciated or valued by their organization is key to finding purpose and satisfaction in their work. In fact, one study found that 66 percent of employees state they would leave their job if they felt unappreciated -- and for millennials and gen z, those numbers are even higher.
Empathy is one of your best avenues for showing your employees that you care about their needs and value their contributions. As Shelley Levitt writes, this stems from how our brains release the chemicals serotonin and oxytocin after empathetic interactions. "Serotonin is the molecular manifestation of the feeling of pride -- we get it when we perceive others like or respect us...On a deep level, we need to feel that we and our work are valued by others, particularly those in our group."
Spurring a release of serotonin and oxytocin as a result of your empathetic leadership will help employees feel a stronger bond to the team and organization, while also reassuring them that their contributions are valued. Happier individuals will work harder and are less likely to leave for other opportunities.
3. Empathy fosters collaboration.
Companies rarely succeed or fail based on the efforts of an individual leader -- they require the collaborative input of several parties. Many of the most successful business leaders understand that innovative solutions often come from others in their organization. They value the input and perspective others have to offer.
Google's Project Aristotle research notably found that the most successful groups demonstrate empathy by having team members who are willing to discuss emotions utilizing nonverbal cues, while also giving each group member equal time to contribute ideas. Studies in education have similarly found that empathy is the baseline for successful collaborative efforts.
Empathy creates an environment where each team member becomes more willing to share their insights--and this is where many of the best ideas are found.
The above examples are just a small sample of how empathy can transform your office environment. By learning to better understand your staff and demonstrating that you actually care about their needs, you will cultivate stronger performance than ever before.