Want to be an effective manager? Show empathy

Susan and some co-workers had wished they could hit the sack after their night shift ended at 7 a.m. But they chose to stay until 10 a.m. (the hour their department manager had set their meeting) lest they earned her ire.

After the meeting ended at 11 a.m., their manager turned to one of her subordinates who seemed about to doze off: “why are your eyes so red?” The poor girl answered: “We’ve been here since four hours ago, Ma’am.”


The reply upset the insensitive manager. The source of such resentment? Lack of empathy on the part of the manager.

A paper titled “Empathy in the Workplace: A Tool for Effective Leadership” by William G. Gnetry, Todd J. Weber and Golnaz Sadri, presented on behalf of the Center for Creative Leadership some years back at the Society of Industrial Organizational Psychology Conference in New York, says the ineffectiveness and underperformance of many managers can be traced to a lack of essential skills which include empathy, a key part of emotional intelligence which is fundamental to leadership. It says transformational and authentic leaders need empathy in order to show their followers that they care for their needs and achievements.


According to the paper, the nature of leadership is shifting, placing a greater emphasis on building and maintaining relationships. “Leaders today need to be more person-focused and be able to work with those not just in the next cubicle, but also with those in other buildings or other countries,” it says.

“Conveying empathic emotion is defined as the ability to understand what others are feeling and to actively share emotions with others,” the paper explains. CCl analyzed data from 6,731 managers from 38 countries to study the connection between empathy and performance, and reported these findings: that empathy is positively related to job performance and that empathy is more important to job performance in some cultures than others.

In the study, the managers had at least three subordinates from each country. The latter were asked to rate their managers on the display of empathic emotions. The subordinates’ responses were a no-brainer: an “empathetic leader is sensitive to signs of overwork in others, shows interest in the needs, hopes and dreams of other people, is willing to help an employee with personal problems, and conveys compassion toward them when other people disclose a personal loss.”

So how can insensitive, indifferent managers learn to demonstrate empathy? The paper says that because empathy is fortunately not a fixed trait, it can be learned.

“Leaders can develop and enhance their empathy skills through coaching, training or developmental opportunities and initiatives,” it says.

They can be trained to do the following:

Talking about empathy.The paper says managers should know that empathy matters and, although skills such as planning, commanding performance and “making the numbers” are important, it is just as important to understand, care for, give time and attention to and develop others, especially in today’s workforce.


Learning listening skills. “To understand others and sense what they are feeling, managers must be good listeners,” according to the paper. It says managers should pay particular attention to nonverbal cues, focus on the tone of voice, pace of speech, facial expressions and gestures.

Encouraging genuine perspective-taking. The paper advises managers to “consistently put themselves in the other person’s place by taking into account the personal experience or perspective of their employees … this also can be applied to solving problems, managing conflict, or driving innovation.”

Cultivating compassion. The paper also says higher-ups should support managers who care about how someone else feels or consider the effects of business decisions on employees, customers and communities. “Go beyond the standard-issue values statement and allow time for compassionate reflection and response,” it says.

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