A client recently asked why does empathy deliver results? My first thought was that it doesn’t. And then after reflecting on the discussion I thought it would be good to share the rationale of why it doesn’t, on its own, and what does.
Meaning of Empathy
Empathy means the capacity to understand or feel what another person is experiencing from within their frame of reference, that is, the capacity to place oneself in another’s position as defined by Wikipedia which I think is a very explanative definition.
Empathy is helpful in leadership, when building and interacting with others and is just one tiny part of Emotional Intelligence that will deliver business results. Empathy is great when a team member tells you their partner has cancer (we all know the feeling of fear and sadness of illness). Empathy is not helpful when you are making someone redundant, compassion and respect are better, so you keep your emotional stability as they will understandably feel sad and scared. My article on emotions at work explains more about this.
Empathy does build trust and helps leaders understand what others might be thinking and feeling. This helps a leader understand how someone might react in different situations, what their needs and motives might be. Empathy is the bridge between human interactions.
Emotional Intelligence and Leadership
Emotional Intelligence or EI is defined by the English Oxford Living Dictionary as: “the capacity to be aware of, control, and express one’s emotions, and to handle interpersonal relationships judiciously and empathetically”. In leadership terms, it is the skill of building productive and fulfilling relationships authentically. The concept was popularized in the 1996 book Emotional intelligence by Daniel Goleman¹.
EI also known as People Skills
Many organizations capture the concept of EI in performance reviews/appraisals as a person’s degree of self-awareness; or HOW they do their job (versus WHAT they do); or how they achieve the results they achieve through their interaction with others. This is often called people skills or soft skills – the way of influencing and working with others. When I first started my career at P&G the performance review was split 50% on the person’s achievements and 50% on how they grew the organization in terms of people (training, coaching, mentoring, enabling). Skilful emotional intelligence by a leader does deliver results.
Proof about Emotional Intelligence and Leadership
What’s the proof that good EI in leadership is necessary to achieve business outcomes? Here is the answer from business, academia, sociology, neurology and financially:
- The Consortium for Research on Emotional Intelligence In Organizations (yes, there is such a body) highlights 19 studies over the last 3 decades from different companies and organizations (American Express and L’Oréal to name two) and 9 research and academic studies from the last 9 years all identifying how EI delivers results².
- Leadership is about relationships; it’s about unleashing the potential of your team by motivating and inspiring them to do the work to deliver the results. Leadership is also about removing barriers which often involves influencing others or resolving conflict. Relationships are about interacting with people, people are human beings not human doings so understanding and adeptness with regards to emotions is key. Additionally, most people leave a job because of their manager, not because of the organization³. That means the relationship (intellectually and emotionally) with the manager is pivotal.
- Brain evolution and structure dictates that all the information from our 5 senses enters our brain through the brain stem and hits the limbic part of our brain first which is the place of emotions and feelings before reaching the neocortex near our forehead which is the place of rational thought. The emotional part of our brain is stimulated first with any piece of information before the executive functioning or reasoning part of our brain! Hence, emotions are always ‘present’ first when we take in stimuli – often the stimuli at work isn’t overly provoking so we don’t notice the emotional part, or we suppress it, or we have high EI to manage our own emotions and influence others’ emotions much more consciously.
- Humans are herd animals or more politely, social creatures from a sociology point of view. We thrive in well-coordinated groups (hence some of the complication of working from home). Employees want to feel as if they belong to the work group. As such, skilful leadership fosters this feeling of belonging and inclusion.
- Company investment in measuring employee engagement is huge! This isn’t about employee happiness or satisfaction. Forbes describes employee engagement as the emotional commitment the employee has to the organization and its goals⁴. An effective leader builds that emotional commitment through understanding and managing their own emotions and recognizing emotions in others and handing relationships and interactions with others, thereby, having employees bring their heads, hands and hearts to their work.
There is a financial cost to poor people skills in terms of lost productivity. FACT. Imagine you have a manager who is in an open-plan office criticizing one of their team for a few minutes. How long do you think that employee is demotivated or unproductive? How long do you think the others in the office are unproductive (trying to console the berated employee or criticizing the manager’s actions)? Imagine the manager does this often. The cost is thousands of pounds over time. The incidences of berating managers are few for my clients. The incidences of empathetic and inspiring managers are few too. The big opportunity to positively increase productivity is the managers who simply do nothing about engaging or inspiring because they don’t know what to do.
- Although people skills don’t have a line on the P&L, they do impact each line – salespeople have to have good relationship-building skills to generate sustainable income, customer service needs good people skills to resolve issues and protect reputation, employees who feel valued and are engaged are less likely to quit, saving recruitment costs and less likely to demand extreme compensation (assuming their basic need is met), purchasers with high EI skills relative to their suppliers can result in discounts, advantageous payment terms, and quicker exposure to new initiatives.
Where could you benefit from more empathy and emotional intelligence?
Book a complimentary coaching session with me here to explore how you could develop your emotional intelligence further to motivate and inspire your teams to achieve.
1 Emotional Intelligence by Daniel Goleman (London: Bloomsbury Publishing 1996)
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