Why empathy is the missing link in leadership

The importance of empathy in fostering innovation and engagement faces challenges as managers have difficulty expressing it effectively.
By: | December 14, 2023

Empathy is often lauded as a great way to boost employees’ ability to innovate, ability to engage with tasks, balance work and life demands, and implore employees to stay at their current positions.

However, many organisations see a lack of managers expressing empathy, as detailed by Julia Milner, a Professor of Leadership at the EDHEC Business School in an article for The Conversation. In a recent research paper on effective leadership authored by Professor Milner, what she found was that managers rated empathy as one of the most challenging skills, above the skills of asking questions and providing feedback.

This, Milner theorised, appeared to be linked to a combination of cognitive bias or stereotypes, such as the perception that empathetic leaders are more likely to be taken advantage of and unable to govern. Another example stemmed from the belief that C-Suite leaders considered virtual interactions via email or video chats “robbed them of in-person communication cues, such as body language.” This was contrary to the opinions of employees who saw emails as beneficial to curb impulsive reactions.

Milner implored leaders to reconsider their behaviour which might impede them from tapping into their empathy. She advised leaders to take steps to translate emotions into the virtual world when communicating with employees virtually. She also suggested finding the right balance in listening and giving advice while also maintaining facial expressions and controlling the tempo of voice to avoid sending signals of a lack of empathy.

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Other advice she gave leaders looking to train their empathy skills includes learning to listen, ask questions and signal to show that they are actively listening; recording themselves during daily interactions to identify previous mistakes; and learning from other leaders known to have good empathetic skills.