Empathy is the Most Important Leadership Superpower

“I am sick and tired of being robbed!” the man across the desk shouted. We were in my office at a financial institution, and you might say the conversation wasn’t going well. As I explained the policies that resulted in fees and withdrawals from his account, his expression had shifted back and forth from confused to frustrated. Now he was angry. “I can’t believe this…. I just cannot get a break.”

The fact is that he wasn’t being robbed. From what I could see as I silently reviewed the transaction record, every fee was appropriate and all of them could have been avoided if he’d properly managed his account. Even so, he seemed to feel powerless. The details of how the account worked didn’t make sense to him. He felt as if every time he turned around, there was another fee, and every time he complained about it, there was another argument.

At this point in the meeting, I did something he didn’t expect. I didn’t argue with him. Instead, I said “I think I get how this feels to you, and I’m sorry that it’s been frustrating.” Then I stood and said, “Let’s take a look at this together.” Laying the account printouts in front of him, I walked around and sat in the other guest chair, on his side of the desk.

What followed was a two-way conversation in which we both used our “inside voices” as we figured out what was happening and why. My motivation in moving to the other side of the desk was to show that I understood and wanted to assist. He thought we were victimizing him and felt powerless to stop the losses. My goal was to communicate “I am on your side.” As we looked at his transactions together, I asked questions and shared a few simple things he could do to avoid future fees. Although he was disappointed that I didn’t refund his fees, he did shake my hand and thank me as he left.

Thinking about the interaction, I realized that things shifted when I stopped talking about policies and facts and just let him know I could understand how frustrating things had been for him. From that point on, we were able to talk through the problem calmly. What made the difference? Empathy.

In the years since then, the capacity for empathy – the ability to understand another person’s feelings and mindset – has helped me in numerous leadership situations. As a CEO, I discovered that empathy was a key part of building alliances, removing barriers to collaboration, and inviting engagement. Even so, I wasn’t always sure it was a respectable leadership skill. I wondered if my colleagues thought it was a bit too touchy-feely.

That’s why I was delighted to read a recent article by Tracy Brower in Forbes entitled, “Empathy is the Most Important Leadership Skill According to Research.” The information not only vindicated my approach, it also gave me tools to share it with others – practical explanations of how to demonstrate empathy. Having read a Cambridge University study showing that most of us are not born with empathy, I wanted to share this with my executive coaching clients. I wanted this skill to become one of their superpowers. In today’s culture, it’s part of being a successful leader.

The article described both cognitive and emotional empathy. For cognitive, it suggested this question: “If I were in his/her position, what would I be thinking right now?”. For emotional, it offered this fill-in-the-blank: “Being in his/her position would make me feel ___”. Having thought about what the other person might be thinking or feeling, a leader can discuss it with the other person in a two-way exchange.

This process is pretty much what was going on in my mind as I sat across from the angry banking client way back when. The motivation was to help – that’s what I was there for. Empathy gave me the insight to communicate that intention, both nonverbally as I changed seats, and with my words. I’m no superhero, but the guy’s handshake at the end of the meeting sure felt super!

Questions from the Coach:

  • Think of the best boss you ever had. On a spectrum from apathy (lack of concern) to empathy (ability to understand and share the feelings of another), where did they fit? Now rate your worst boss on the same spectrum.
  • Reflecting again on the best and worst bosses, where do you currently fit on the empathy spectrum?
  • In our rapidly changing world, how could demonstrating empathy help you address changes in your industry and become a more impactful leader?

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