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Empathy in Leadership

From homeless shelters in Michiganto villages in Kenya, volunteering takes Laura Miehls around the world

 

Laura Miehls is one of Henkel’s engaged employees who has volunteered the past 20 years at the South Oakland Warming Center, a homeless shelter that serves nearly 100 people a night. She also collects small toiletries from hotels for the shelter, and asks the sales reps and employees at theMadison Heights office to do the same when they travel. Laura takes her passion for volunteering on the road – tutoring sixth grade students inGhana and building a community bakery inSouth Africa – all while on vacation. She has also built housing with Habitat for Humanity inIndonesia andKenya. Here ambitions were all supported by Henkel and Henkel’s Corporate Citizenship initiative called MIT (Make an Impact on Tomorrow).

But this is just one part the story tells us – the other part is about empathy, empathy in leadership.

 

But – what exactly is meant by empathy? Being asked for a definition people come up with very different explanations. This is hardly surprising as also in research and science a variation of descriptions exist. When using metaphors to describe the meaning of the word, it is most often defined by ‘standing in someone else’s shoes’ or ‘seeing through someone else’s eyes’. Empathy could be described as the ability to understand another person’s circumstances, point of view, and thoughts. It is closely related to communication as it is important to listen instead of just speaking.

 

Well, why is empathy an important leadership skill? As leadership is all about people, emotional intelligence plays a big role in being a successful leader. If the goal of a manager is to enable his employees to do their work in an efficient way and to support them in delivering a great performance, it is of high importance that she or he is able to understand his employees, their perceptions, their motivation and what is important for them. Only if the leader knows and values every single person in his team and is able to understand them, she or he is able to create the best team mix and a good working atmosphere as well as motivation and commitment. A leadership style in which leaders value their followers as individuals, are empathic and tolerant and leverage diversity because of individual differences – not in spite of – could work as a ‘pull’-factor for sustainable motivation and good performance of the employees.

In contrast, leadership styles which use strict guidelines and equal treatment of all employees – no matter how the individual personality and preferences are – could be described as ‘push’-factors and presumably will work successfully only in a short-term view. Research by the Center for Creative Leadership proves that empathy is positively related to job performance. In the study 6.731 leaders were rated by at least three subordinates on different items to give information on their empathy. Furthermore these leaders were ranked by a direct manager concerning their performance. The results reveal that leaders who show more empathy toward direct reports are viewed as better performers in their job by their managers.

Empathy – of course – is not only important in leadership. It is also important when making business decisions. For example, marketing managers who put themselves in the shoes of the consumers or sales managers who empathize well with the customers are more successful than colleagues who do not try to deeply understand their markets.

You want the train you empathic skills? You can! First step is to concentrate on you, understanding your own feelings, and reasons for them. From this starting point you should try to broaden your perspective: Interact with different people, look for empathetic role models and try to seek out similarities between other people and you. Lastly be open minded and train to taking on another’s perspective!

 

Do you agree on the importance of empathy for successful leadership?

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