How Empathy Adds to a Leader's Power

Understanding other people's perspectives and feelings is anything but "soft," writes emotional intelligence expert Daniel Goleman.

Daniel Goleman, author of the bestseller “Emotional Intelligence,” is a regular contributor to Korn Ferry.

Empathy makes leaders stronger. 

That statement may seem counterintuitive, but empirical research shows it to be true. In a recent article, I wrote about research done by the Center for Creative Leadership that found empathy predicts better job performance for managers and leaders. The study’s findings were especially true in countries with cultures that favor strong leaders.

Korn Ferry’s report, "The Power of EI," highlights empathy as an emotional-intelligence competence that makes leaders more effective. The research reveals a positive link between empathy and performance-enhancing leadership styles, team climate and employee retention.

What Do I Mean by Empathy?

Among the kinds of empathy neuroscientists recognize are two of particular relevance for executive effectiveness: cognitive empathy and emotional empathy. Each has its basis in different circuits in our brains. With cognitive empathy, you can understand another person's perspective, reflect on his situation, and consider the forces that may be acting upon him. Emotional empathy allows you to sense unspoken feelings by reading facial expressions, tone of voice, or other non-verbals. Both forms of empathy are useful for leaders. 

Why Empathy Matters for Leaders

Essentially, empathy is a way to gather information about the people around you. Given how much of a leader’s job is managing relationships, leaders who lack empathy miss information that could be crucial for their ownand their organization’ssuccess. Keen empathy can strengthen leaders’ understandings of their staff, customers and external stakeholders.

How well do you know the members of your staff, what motivates them, and how they experience their work? What do they see from their positions in your organization? With cognitive empathy, you can read how staff members think about their roles and imagine what it is like to inhabit a given position. This provides insight into working conditions, potential inefficiencies, and what really happens in your organization. Emotional empathy tunes you in to the personalities and feelings of people in your company. This can help make sense of tensions that may exist between departments and why some parts of the organization have better emotional climates (and thus better employee retention rates).

To meet your customers’ needs, you must also understand their world and their worldview. Cognitive empathy is a tool that can help you look below the surface. What is the customers' world like? How do they use and think about your product or service? Emotional empathy helps you recognize how they feel about it, as well as, for example, any frustrations your customers face with it. Sure, the R&D staff might be able to get some of that information, but what if you hosted small group meetings with top leadership? You’re going to be the one gathering information.

Every organization resides amid a network of relationships beyond the company’s walls. Your company interacts with governmental regulators, communities within which the company is based, competitors, trade groups and more. Savvy leaders deploy empathy to pick up on information about each of those external stakeholders. Who are the people making the regulations and what are their concerns? What do the neighbors experience about the company's offices? Is it seen as a source of traffic and heavy trucks that damage roads paid for by the city, or a source of jobs, tax revenue and community service? What do competitors and others in your industry really think about your company?

The bottom line? Leaders skilled at empathy are not “soft.” They’re smart at using a powerful leadership tool.