Empathy is the Most Important Leadership Skill in 2022

Almost three-quarters of global leaders say that empathy increases performance.

Leading with empathy is a now a key leadership skill

Empathy may have been considered a skill for some time but it has taken on a new level of importance in the workplace. New research makes it abundantly clear how empathetic leaders are the future of work. Being a good leader is mastering a suite of skills of all kinds to create the perfect conditions for optimum engagement, success and happiness within your team or company. However, empathy is proving to be the skill at the top of the list of what leaders must get right.

It’s no secret that business leaders are increasingly prioritizing empathy in the workplace. The latest data from an annual global leadership study found that 73% of respondents say that empathy increases performance, up from 66% last year and 58% in 2016. It’s also clear that leaders see empathy as a way to increase productivity, engagement and retention.

Almost three-quarters of global leaders say that empathy increases performance

What is Empathy?

Empathy is not an innate skill that some people have and others don’t. It’s a learned ability. The good news is that it can be taught and practiced, just like any other skill. It is defined as having the capacity to understand or feel what another person is experiencing from within their frame of reference, that is, the capacity to place oneself in another’s position. It is to in some way experience the outlook or emotions of another whilst being within oneself. There are many definitions for empathy that encompass a broad range of emotional states.

Why is Empathy important right now?

What’s this newfound relevancy of empathy about? Well, it’s become a necessary skill in the workplace due to people increasingly experiencing different kinds of stress. The data suggests that the pandemic has had a huge impact on this and how our lives and work have been flipped upside down, even now.

To put it in to perspective, a global study conducted by Qualtrics found 42% of people have experienced a decline in mental health. Specifically, 67% of people are experiencing increases in stress, while 57% have increased anxiety, and 54% are emotionally exhausted. 53% of people are sad, 50% are irritable, 28% are having trouble concentrating, 20% are taking longer to finish tasks, 15% are having trouble thinking and 12% are challenged to juggle their responsibilities. Which just shows the level of stress that people are under right now and how people able to relate more closely with their situations can help with relating to and managing them in the workplace.

However, as many people believe empathy is only a soft skill—a way of relating to others by understanding emotions—it’s not always clear what exactly makes it so important in leadership roles. In fact, this misconception can prevent leaders from developing their own empathetic abilities or prioritising empathy among other leadership skills such as communication, vision setting or decision making.

How can you recruit empathetic people?

Recruiters and hiring managers can look for people who care about their co-workers, they should be seeking someone who is willing to help others and isn’t afraid to ask for help when needed.  In addition to asking candidates about their personal interests and passions outside of work (which is a great way to assess whether they’ll fit into the team), we also consider asking them questions about times they received feedback or had to give feedback that wasn’t easy to take/give but was ultimately helpful for improving the overall job performance and how it made them feel. These types of assessments can go along way with understanding a candidates empathy skills.

How can you become more empathetic?

First, remember that people have different perspectives than yours and that’s okay! You don’t have to agree with everything someone else does or says, but it’s important for leaders to understand where others are coming from before making decisions about their work performance. Asking questions like “How did you feel when ____ happened?” or “How would ____ change your life?” will help put yourself in someone else’s shoes and give them an opportunity to talk about what matters most in their lives—which may not always be job related.

Second, reflect on past experiences so that they inform future behaviours at work (or anywhere). If someone has been hurt by your or your teams behaviour, reflect on why and take actions to make sure this can be prevented in the future.

How can you nurture an empathetic organisation culture?

Model empathy. One of the best ways to teach people how to be empathetic is by modelling it yourself. When you’re interacting with your team members, ask them how they feel about the work they’re doing and what their goals are personally and professionally.

Share your struggles. If you want others to open up about their own struggles and vulnerabilities, being open about yours will inspire them to do the same without fear of judgment or criticism from you.

Be there for your team/colleagues in times of need. Being there when someone needs a shoulder to cry on or just some extra help can mean everything in terms of fostering an environment where people feel safe expressing their emotions—and making sure that everyone is getting along well at work.