What if I told you that you could develop a skill that could give you an edge in conversations? Not an edge in the sense of overpowering or controlling a conversation, but in the sense of being keenly aware of the feelings and thoughts of others?

Well, you can. It's called empathy.

To better grasp this leadership virtue commonly misunderstood as too touchy-feely, true empathy happens when we we imagine the world, or a situation, from someone else's point of view.

It's what researchers sometimes call "mind reading." It involves being good at reading others' emotions and body language. Even research agrees on empathy's strength and potential for influencing others.

In one DDI study of more than 15,000 leaders from over 300 organizations across 20 industries and 18 countries, empathy--specifically, the ability to listen and respond with empathy--rose to the top as the most critical driver of overall performance.

Roman Krznaric, author of Empathy: Why It Matters, and How to Get It, calls it "the cornerstone of teamwork, good innovative design, and smart leadership. It's about helping others feel heard and understood."

This whole premise does have an air of genius about it, considering that when you take on the perspective of those you are talking with, it engages people on the spot. This can be a difference maker.

Anna McMurphy, head of people, culture, and entertainment at SteelHouse, explained to me that empathy is one of the key tenets of "love in action" that she practices and which defines SteelHouse's great company culture.

I believe leaders fail to demonstrate "leadership love" because they're more focused on a "just get it done" mentality. When leaders like that are rushing to accomplish a goal, empathy can fall by the wayside. They don't take the time to consider how their team feels or thinks. And while the goal may be accomplished in the end, it comes at a cost to morale that may ultimately carry a heavy price.

Don't underestimate empathy's true potential. My advice for readers in decision-making roles is to begin developing leaders to learn this relational skill for competitive advantage. In the end, your ability to empathize is critical to good teamwork and will make a big difference in the performance of others. 

Published on: Jan 2, 2019
Like this column? Sign up to subscribe to email alerts and you'll never miss a post.