This crucial aspect of good management can overcome hardship and increase productivity
Recently, one of our team members missed a critical deadline on an important project. Unsurprisingly, he got an earful from his manager. It wasn’t until much later that we came to know that his wife and daughter both had covid, and he was preoccupied, caring for them at home.
Such examples of lack of empathy abound in today’s workplace. A stressful work environment, terse communication and declining employee tenures often result in a transactional attitude towards co-workers. And yet, particularly in these pandemic times, with people having gone through grief, loss and lockdown, and most living in fear, empathy is a critical leadership skill.
Empathetic leadership is the ability to lead while understanding the contexts, experiences and needs of others, and being aware of their thoughts and feelings. It is the ability to live and experience the story of another as if it were our own. The story in our minds is often different from the one playing in the minds of others. Empathetic leaders understand this. In the above example, an empathetic manager would have not just felt sympathy for the team member. She would have taken pains to remember how she felt in a similar instance, and what impact it had had on her work performance.
This is often easier said than done. We readily expect others to put themselves in our shoes, but struggle to do so ourselves. The 13th-century Sufi philosopher Nasreddin Hodja illustrates this well with the following story. A farmer angrily stomps into his neighbour’s farm, seeking compensation for the damage to his crop resulting from the neighbour’s bull running loose. The neighbour vehemently declines any such compensation, saying the farmer should have taken better care of his crop and fenced his farm adequately. Surprisingly, the farmer readily accepts this argument, but to the neighbour’s dismay, goes on to say that what had actually happened was the reverse—it was the farmer’s bull that had trod on the neighbour’s crop!
Difficult as it may be to practise, the benefits of empathetic leadership are undeniable, especially so under current circumstances. Research, as well as anecdotal evidence, points to the substantial positive impact of a culture of empathy on employee morale, productivity, tenure and loyalty; and on the mental health of employees too. It has also proven to be useful in resolving gridlocks and stalemates, unlocking considerable shareholder value. We often see the world for how we are, and not for how it is. Taking a perspective that has no empathy can make us think that the world is a cruel and lonely place. If recent times have shown us anything, we know that this is not true. Opening your heart and mind to the stories of others can make you feel less alone, and increase your motivation to build genuine connections. People often say that they don’t leave bad jobs but bad managers and co-workers; perhaps those who stay do so for outstanding leaders.
So, how can one become an empathetic leader? Fortunately, empathy is a learnable skill, although it takes effort and patience to build. The capacity to empathize can be developed by listening, being vulnerable to ourselves, accounting for our needs and being open to expanding our own frame of reference. Listening differs from hearing. When we listen, we hear and also simultaneously observe what sensations, feelings and thoughts we are experiencing when we hear. Here’s a simple example to distinguish hearing from listening: When someone walks into your office room and seems perturbed, you enquire if all is well and s/he responds saying that it is; however, you don’t seem convinced with this response, as it seems somewhat incongruent with your own observation. This capacity to observe is a critical component that differentiates hearing from listening.
During the all-India lockdown last year, several hospitals faced a crisis as their footfalls had dropped to less than 3% of their usual levels. For many, the overheads required to keep the organization running became prohibitively high. In addition, doctors themselves were fearful of covid. In one specific case that we are aware of, the founder of the hospital and her leadership team listened and empathized with doctors on their concerns and fears. She assured them and their families of the hospital’s support, and also encouraged the doctors to turn to counselling for support by sharing her own vulnerabilities. She also spoke about how she as a leader was taking therapeutic support for mental health, too, to get past that difficult phase.
Empathy is undoubtedly an essential leadership competence that needs to be included in performance reviews. Doing a qualitative analysis of the ability of leaders to encourage, motivate and upskill their teams is an option that could be pursued. Encouragement, motivation and team competence are the scaffolding of management processes aimed at increasing productivity. The same example of the hospital can be referenced here. Despite turbulent times, the hospital continues to thrive. During the last year, its staff worked as a team, created additional initiatives to increase revenues, managed to keep attrition levels very low, and closed the year with a healthy balance sheet. A focus on empathy has been a win-win for all stakeholders.
Organizationally, empathy needs to become a mainstream narrative, not just as a measurable attribute of leadership, but also a key element of organizational culture. The difference it makes is significant.
Kapil Viswanathan and Anna Chandy are, respectively, chairman of the executive committee of Krea University, and a social psychologist