When was the last time you put yourself in someone else's shoes? I mean, actually seeing through that person's eyes?

The ability to understand and share the feelings of others is known as empathy, and this vital leadership skill can make all the difference between a good leader and an exceptional one.

There are many reasons why we should practice empathy at work. For business leaders, the stakes are exceptionally high. From a more loyal, engaged staff, to elevated productivity and better teamwork, the benefits of leading with empathy are well-documented. Albeit common sense, this skill is often a missing component of leadership.

On the Unmessable podcast, I spoke to Mike Teng, CEO, and co-founder of Swing Education-- which finds and places substitute teachers in the education system-- is now serving over 1,000 schools and filling over 10,000 teacher absence days per month. As a first time founder, in three years, Teng grew the company to $20 Million in gross revenue, raised $23 Million from top tier Silicon Valley funds like GV and Social Capital, and assembled a diverse staff-- 30 percent minorities, 55 percent female, 75 percent female and people of color on their board. 

Right before Teng founded the company, he and his wife experienced the heartbreak of infertility challenges. With unwavering dedication, the couple tried for three years to conceive and through this difficult time, a lightbulb went off for Teng.

In seeing his wife go through her emotional rollercoaster, despite his journey being tough as well, he got to understand the profound power of empathy. Through developing his own empathy skills, he was able to connect with his wife in ways he didn't before and the whole experience brought them closer. In fact, his learning on empathy didn't stop there -- as he launched the business and scaled his team, he saw a direct correlation between effective leadership and the ability to empathize. Swing Education's annual turnover is 7 percent, where the 2016 turnover average rate for all industries is 17.8 percent

What are some things you can do to improve your empathy skills? How can you use empathy to form real connections with those around you? Here are three pointers Teng uses: 

1. Get out of your own head and listen.

To understand someone else's perspective, you'll need to start becoming aware of your own biases, opinions, and past experiences that stand in the way of actually getting what the other person is communicating, whether that's verbal or non-verbal. Being heard and seen is a fundamental need we have as humans. Gifting your team with empathy will deepen the connection and set the stage for trust to be present.

A recent study by research firm DDI discovered that empathy is one of the most crucial drivers of overall performance among managers. Unfortunately, it also found that only 40% of business leaders demonstrate proficient empathy skills.

Where do you sit on this scale? How much work do you need to do to exude the type of leadership you want to be remembered for?

2. Build a strong connection with the members on your team.

A large part of truly understanding someone's perspective involves asking the right questions. When meeting with staff on a one-on-one basis, or even when you're meeting in teams, ask thoughtful questions to help you get to know them on a deeper level.

As authors in the leadership book Trillion Dollar Coach share, Bill Campbell-- coach of Google founders, Steve Jobs, Sheryl Sanberg and other elite members of Silicon Valley-- always preached to put people first. He had this practice of starting weekly team meetings by talking about weekend travel adventures as a means of connecting on a personal level first, before business.    

Why is it important to dig deep? Because in order to be a great leader, you need to be an incredible manager, and to do that you need to know your staff and what they are up against. Your team will let you in to the degree they trust you so building that background of connectivity will make all the difference.

3. Focus on little gestures.

There is a correlation between empathy and kindness. You can train yourself to be more empathetic by simply opening yourself up and paying attention to small, everyday gestures, like holding the elevator for someone, or filling up the coffee pot once you've finished the last of it. Small acts of kindness can be building blocks for empathy, and by putting others' well-being first, they will be more inclined to reciprocate.

If you want your company to be successful, as a leader you'll learn to look for ways to become more aware of your staff's struggles, compliment them on jobs well done and find small but effective ways to demonstrate your appreciation.

Published on: May 16, 2019
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