As more meetings and relationships happen online rather than in person, empathy is hard to come by these days. The ability to be empathetic is also more repressed in some people than others – generally, those individuals who are more in touch with themselves emotionally are able to feel the pain, suffering and desires of others. Conventionally in Western culture, men must work harder on developing their empathy than women, as they tend to suppress their emotions more.
Empathy is stereotypically seen as a more feminine quality if we compare it with the common view of, say, competitiveness as a more masculine one. That, of course, is not to say that women can leave all the competing to the men in their leadership teams and nor can men leave all the empathy to the women. Hopefully, we are all driven to progress all these leadership qualities equally.
When setting up a new part of our business, Flourish, a food hall and kitchen, we were clearly keen to embody the characteristics of good leadership, such as empathy, right from the start. If management actively practices empathy it will spread throughout the organisation and right out towards customers, who will notice it and want to spend more money with you. This is particularly true within the retail and hospitality sector where there is generally poor pay and high staff turnover.
After only a couple of weeks of Flourish opening and before the first payday, a butcher discovered that one of the chefs had been walking a considerable distance to work because he had run out of money from his previous employer to pay his bus fare. Needless to say, if we had been aware of this then we would have taken action, but rather than relying on someone else to do something, the butcher offered to give the chef a bike to get to work. You can imagine how pleased I was at the start of this new venture to see empathy and kindness expressed this way. And it is spreading to customers. With very little marketing spend we are seeing queues for lunch and breakfast every day!
For those of us who didn’t develop much empathy growing up, there’s good news, as it can be learned in adulthood. It was only later in my leadership career that I truly understood the magnitude of empathy, and what I would give to have grasped this from the start.
To grow your empathy skills you first need to slow down, and instead of purely focusing on the goal or cause, focus on the people who are going to take you there. Many entrepreneurs are very goal-focused and sometimes lose touch with the feelings of their people. Encouraging fellow managers to demonstrate empathy in the workplace sets an important example and sitting with each other not ‘being productive’ is perfectly OK as it means you can develop a proper connection with your team members.
Secondly, taking the time to actively listen is vital, and by listening I mean really listening, and putting your phone away. Leading on from this, it is also important to tune your ear and listen for the meaning behind people’s words, who may have a less direct way of expressing how they feel. Finally, increasing our ability to put ourselves in other people’s shoes by reflection and meditation will make us better leaders, as those people will feel respected, listened to, trusted and safe.
The word ‘empathy’ comes from the Greek empatheia – em (into) and pathos (feeling), suggesting a movement towards and into someone else’s emotions, moving from one place, ourselves, to another place – the other’s space, feelings and pain. If we have an emotional response when remembering great leaders who have guided us in the past, it is likely that they were leaders with high empathy and that’s the reason why we felt a connection with them. If we want to be inspirational leaders, then we also need to develop empathy or to put it more accurately, nurture the empathy within us. Those leaders who can embrace empathy will not only be the more successful leaders but also those who, in Barack Obama’s words, ‘can change the world’.
Paul Hargreaves is a B-Corp Ambassador, speaker and author of The Fourth Bottom Line: Flourishing in the new era of compassionate leadership out now, priced £14.99.