How can leaders develop the ability to lead more empathetically?

The Empathy Manifesto is a three-part series by Catalyst Thinking Partners, Joss Mathieson and Oliver Hansard. In part 1, they explored the need for leaders to use a new suite of behavioural skills to navigate our uncertain world. In part 2, they considered how empathy can be used as a compass to create a modern, inclusive and high-performing workplace for the future.

The Empathy Manifesto, Part 3: How to become an empathetic leader

The repercussions of the coronavirus pandemic have already begun to bite for some organisations. Redundancies have been an unfortunate early consequence. However, the way in which this has been managed has already thrown up some wildly contrasting examples of whether the leaders are empathetic or not – from the good, like AirBnB, to the truly bad.

These examples shine a light on the importance of empathy and behaving in an appropriate way. It is very difficult to keep things private within an organisation these days. Whether you demonstrate empathy becomes a clue as to your values as an organisation and whether customers and potential recruits would want to work with you. Crucially though, it’s not just empathy broadly but the type that matters.

First, and most common in organisations, is cognitive empathy, which is the ability to think about how someone else might see things. Then there is emotional empathy, which is connecting with how another person or people are feeling.

The challenge with cognitive empathy can be that there is too much emphasis on thought rather than feeling. Conversely, if you experience emotional empathy it can overwhelm. As a result, both approaches can lead to inaction.

Our own work with leaders and organisations is geared toward helping develop generative empathy.

From experience, in an organisational setting, this is usually the most appropriate type. We have found that generative empathy strikes a good balance. Done well, one is able to behave with feeling towards others whilst at the same generating insight, possibility and action. At its best, it is a critical component for truly effective empowerment and inclusion.

How do I develop generative empathy as a core leadership skill?

To act with consistent generative empathy, leaders and teams need to develop and use some key skills and behaviours. Our proprietary model is ACORN© – from small improvements in empathy, a far more effective and powerful way of working can grow.

Coaching as a tool to bring the Empathy Compass© and ACORN© model together

With businesses under pressure to change, how can they best introduce and apply these critical new behavioural skills?

In our experience, coaching is a practical and powerful way to help leaders and teams develop these skills and drive positive, people-centred organisational change. A blended approach of traditional group-based work plus focussed one-on-one coaching has shown itself to be an effective way to introduce these skills.

We run a programme in which individual participants are introduced to the principles and tools of generative empathy and are then able to experiment with these in one-on-one breakout sessions. After the group work, participants are assigned a coach who is skilled in empathy, and the Empathy Compass© and ACORN© framework are combined to develop a tailored leadership development programme.

Underpinning this, we use a coaching model which supports a shift from current reality to ideal future. By clearly envisaging where you are trying to move to and what needs to change to make it happen, this framework works powerfully at an individual and a team level, developing empathy and improving performance in parallel.

As leaders and teams make the shift towards ideal, we also help them to make it real for their colleagues and customers, bringing edge to their increasingly empathetic ways of working through valiance, understanding, compassion and authenticity.

Results. Results. Results.

The results are leaders who have enhanced their ability and confidence to be more empathetic in everything they do, in order to achieve superior outcomes for themselves, their colleagues and customers, their teams and their organisations.

Feedback from our empathy coaching programmes reinforces their positive impact. In one example, individual participants judged that their ability to listen and fully understand others’ points of view had increased by almost 15% in six months as a result of the work they had done personally to increase their own empathy skills. In addition, their leadership team’s ability to behave empathetically as a group had increased by 20%.

Furthermore, participants in the programme also observed that they were listening much more, pausing before responding, and not rushing to answer or being as defensive when challenged.

Feedback from Empathetic Leadership programme participants:

I have realised what a powerful capability empathy is.

I think I was always quite an empathetic person to others, the problem was with myself and I have noticed a change in that I am more empathetic and kinder to myself.

We are a more cohesive, collaborative and considerate team. The respect we have for each other’s areas of expertise is much more tangible than before and “thank you” comes more readily. We also seem to have more fun now!

Creating more empathetic organisations

Whilst it takes time for changes at the senior leadership level to ripple out and positively impact performance across the business as a whole, given how rapidly the world as we know it is changing we believe the need to create more empathetic leaders and organisations is both essential and urgent. 

If empathy can be developed effectively at all four points of the Empathy Compass©, there is real potential for a material impact on business performance. Starting with empathy for oneself to be at one’s best, then improving one’s interactions with colleagues and customers, then increasing empathy in teams to boost honesty, creativity and collaboration, is the way to navigate through challenging and uncertain times. 

It is only when empathy becomes embedded at the organisational level that an organisation will be able to fully benefit from the edge that empathy gives. However, science shows how scalable this change in behaviour is – doing the right thing and being consistently kind and empathetic to others not only makes them and us feel better, it also makes those who witness these acts feel better and more likely to act that way with others. 

Empathy generates empathy in multiple ways. Imagine the powerful effect this can have through your organisation. 

Build your empathetic leadership with us

We offer a leadership and team development programme with an enduring impact: Building an Empathetic Organisation. 

It is tailored to the culture and values of your business and designed to support your employees’ ability to thrive by establishing an increasingly respectful, empathetic and inclusive working environment. It also enhances your team’s interpersonal skills, helping you to stand out with customers in a competitive market.

Building an Empathetic Organisation brings to life the elements of the Empathy Manifesto and helps leaders understand how they can develop, apply and benefit from enhanced empathy. It brings together VUCA leadership behaviours, the Empathy Compass© and the ACORN© model for generative empathy to support a shift in thinking, behaviours and results.

Critical listening, understanding and responding skills are enhanced to make participants more effective in the way they operate internally and how they engage outside your business. 

Our programme typically starts with the senior leadership team and then cascades through key business areas. The programme helps leaders understand the imperative for more empathetic leadership and then equips them with a critical set of skills to develop greater empathy, become more open and inclusive and harness the full benefits of diversity. Enhanced empathy skills will also help to reinforce your organisational values.

Book your free Discovery session to find out how greater empathy can help you, your team and organisation to ignite your performance.

Want to learn more? Contact Joss or Oliver: 

Email joss@catalystthinking.com or oliver@catalystthinking.com 

Call Joss on +44 (0)7717 801205 or Oliver on +44 (0)7703 168082

Book a call