The empathy gap can lead to poor retention and even poorer performance. Closing it is the key to a successful C-suite.
Since becoming Stanton Chase’s Global Chair of the Board, I have spent quite a bit of time philosophizing about what it means to be a good leader.
It is natural for leaders to strive to ensure that they leave a lasting impression. Sadly, they often neglect doing the one thing that would make that possible—supporting their colleagues and employees. Doing so is only possible through empathic leadership.
It is also important to note that empathic leadership does not mean being a pushover or shying away from giving honest feedback. Instead, it is about learning to consider the circumstances and experiences of others.
Becoming a More Empathic Leader
One of the hardest challenges you will face on the road to becoming a more empathic leader is an empathy gap. It occurs when you struggle to understand a mental state that is different from your own. Admittedly, I am not a psychologist (in fact, I studied astrophysics at university). However, I can assure you that cognitive biases like these are just as detrimental to executives as they are to psychologists. This is because of the way they affect executives’ ability to relate to others.
Empathy gaps can occur when executives have to deal with others’ emotional reactions. Imagine a CEO who has piloted a company through multiple financial recessions. Someone like that may find it difficult to understand and empathize with a new CFO who panics at the slightest hint of an economic downturn.
The first time I realized I was observing an empathy gap in action was during my first year at university. The professors who struggled with the curriculum themselves when they were students were the best teachers. The reason for this was that they understood the nuances of the curriculum’s challenges. Conversely, the brightest and most talented professors were often the worst teachers because they did not understand how students could work through the curriculum but not understand it. They mistakenly believed that the subject matter was easy simply because that was how they experienced it. In their minds, anyone who was having difficulty was either not dedicated enough or not intellectually capable.
The most dangerous part of an empathy gap is that it happens unconsciously.
Often, unempathetic leaders do not intentionally distance themselves from their colleagues and coworkers; they do so without even being aware of it. This phenomenon means that to be truly empathic, you must mindfully cultivate empathy as a habit.
Those who disagree with my musings should reflect on the impact of unempathetic leaders. Employee and executive retention are directly related to the way your executives interact with others. The cost of poor retention is exorbitantly high and should be something all businesses take into consideration.
Even unempathetic leaders who manage to surround themselves with top talent will eventually have to try to replace them. Executives and employees who work under uncaring leaders are 2.6 times more likely to seek employment elsewhere.
My 4 Steps to Success
These are some of the habits I am cultivating on my own journey to becoming a more empathic leader:
- Listen actively. We tend to listen to respond, which may be a useful skill if you are arguing a case in court. If you are trying to reach an amicable solution with someone, however, this might not be the best approach. Being a good listener also breeds innovation and collaboration. When executives and employees feel like they can express themselves freely without fear of being misunderstood or reprimanded, they will feel empowered to bring new ideas and approaches to the table.
- Care personally. Kim Scott’s Radical Candor suggests leaders should challenge directly but care personally. Caring personally is the most important part of that formula. Being aware of the subjective experiences of those you work with and genuinely caring about them is key. Doing so will also make it easier to make progress toward any diversity, equity, and inclusion goals you may be working toward. DE&I initiatives are at their most effective when those who oversee them are sincere about understanding the plight of others.
- Be reachable. You will only be able to have empathic interactions with others if you are available to them. Schedule time to meet with key company players, even if you do not need to discuss anything important. Having strong relationships at work leads to prosocial behavior and a sense of value in the workplace.
- Avoid empathy gaps. Whenever you are about to react to someone else’s emotional response, stop and think about whether your reaction will improve the situation. Ask yourself: Is it the kind of response that would have helped me if I were on the receiving end of it? To overcome the executive empathy gap, you must try to relate to others. If you do not consider others’ perspectives and experiences, you will not reap the rewards of true collaboration.
I readily admit that striving toward being a more empathic leader is hard, but the effort and accompanying results are well worth it. An inspired workforce is the best kind of workforce, and empathic leadership is the key to creating one.
As Simon Sinek once said: “Great companies don’t hire skilled people and motivate them, they hire already motivated people and inspire them.”