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What role can empathy play in improving employee engagement?

What role can empathy play in improving employee engagement?
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We examine the role empathy plays in improving employee engagement in this video with Amanda Wildman, Director of Emotionally-i-Fit and our former Head of Learning and Development.

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What is empathy?

Empathy is one of the aspects of emotional intelligence (EI) and EI is all about the ability to recognise, understand and manage our own emotions.

EI is responsible for our ability to understand what our emotions are telling us and being able to make decisions according to this. The deeper our understanding of our own thoughts, feelings and emotions, the more we can understand someone else's. Thanks to EI, we can intelligently use our emotions to build relationships with ourselves and with others. It is empathy that allows us to share and understand another's "state of mind" or emotion.

In the context of leadership development, empathy is a critical part of:

  • Being able to manage conflict
  • Resolving challenges in the workplace
  • Identifying the needs of our co-workers
  • Being able to actively listen

All of the above functions make empathy a crucial part of emotional engagement.

Empathy is an important element of developing individuals and teams

The first step in engaging employees is building trust. In order to feel engaged, employees must feel they can trust the organisation and the individual leader. This can be achieved through making them feel listened to, heard and understood.

As the world of work is changing, the traditional "command and control" leadership style has become noticeably less effective. It has been replaced by new, modern and collaborative leadership styles, based on mutual understanding. It's critical for your employees to feel that they are heard and that they are able to trust the person they work for.

"Empathy allows managers or leaders to really engage on a completely different level, so it kind of makes it less task-focused and far more humanistic in their approach to leadership."

It is empathy that helps to create this desired dynamic as it helps managers and leaders to interact with their employees on a more personal level, with less task-focused and more humanistic approach.

It helps to create and express the right vision and build a collaborative working environment.

Empathy allows leaders to fully understand what drives and motivates their employees

Managing, developing and coaching employees is only possible if a manager or coach is "tuned-in" to the things important to their employee/coachee. That refers to listening and tuning into the non-verbal communication. The ability to truly listen from an intuitive place, to tune into the emotions of the other person, is the area linked to empathy.

An example of that would be (particularly when you look at it from a Myers-Briggs perspective) when you’ve got a team full of individuals who all have different preferences. If you're not clear about, or not interested in understanding, what each of their perspectives on things are, or if you're not prepared walk in their shoes, then it’s very unlikely that you'll be able to adapt and flex your style to the need of that individual.

Empathy is very much about being able to listen to the person that you would be coaching, to really hear them but hear them on many different levels.

When you bring that back to the ability coaching, some of the core competences are:

  • Being able to be curious
  • Being able to understand
  • Asking questions but truly listening

The positive impact on business

On the organisational level, the ability to empathise with co-workers can and does have an impact on the business results.

This has been proven and discussed in numerous research papers and books, such as a paper written by Daniel Goleman for the Harvard Business Review on 'What Makes a Leader?'. There's more and more research being published on the topic, we now have enough data to state that 90% of high performers have high EQ as opposed to IQ.

What's more, 58% of job performance can be linked to emotional intelligence. This means that while IQ is an important element of success, it is emotional intelligence that plays a bigger role when it comes to business results and performance.

As mentioned, empathy is one aspect of emotional intelligence, and EI can be looked at on three different levels:

  • The attitude we hold about ourselves and others
  • The ability to tune into emotions, feelings and thoughts (our own and those of others)
  • Behaviours that drive our decisions and decision-making processes

Empathy allows leaders to predict the impact their decisions will have on their employees. It helps them to strategise, build engaged teams, nurture future generations of leaders and inspire their employees.