Empathy in Leadership: The Hidden Key to Career Success

From Understanding Emotions to Building Lasting Connections: The Power of Empathy in the Workplace

Co.Lab Team
December 15, 2023

They say people quit their bosses and not their jobs. It may oversimplify a complex situation, but it has a ring of truth in it. One of the reasons why bosses become bad bosses is because of .. lack of empathy. You know those people!

Empathy is a very important trait. In fact, empathy is the most important leadership skill. Though it’s something that not everyone has because it’s something learned during childhood.

Unfortunately, it's not a universal trait. While some managers inspire loyalty and motivation, others, lacking empathy, inadvertently push talents away.

Fear not though! There are ways to increase empathy during adulthood. Although it’s an uphill battle, it’s certainly doable.

This articles dives into the essence of empathy, its impact on leadership, and how it can be harnessed for professional growth.

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What is Empathy?

Many often chalk up career progression to hard skills or network connections, but the ability to genuinely understand and resonate with others' feelings is a game-changer.

Empathy refers to the cognitive and emotional reactions of a person to the observed experiences of another. If you see someone having a bad time, and you’re able to relate to this person on a deep level (e.g. feeling like they do, understanding where they’re coming from), then you’re being empathetic.

Happy potato with human face cheering up a sad potato with human face

How does it help with your career? When you’re someone who can truly relate to another, you are able to extract information from the core problem of someone else. You know exactly why they’re happy about a product or upset with their experience. Since you have these information, you are able to craft messaging that strikes at the heart of your stakeholders and propose solutions that accurately solve others’ pain points. Neat, right?

Being better at something starts with understanding what it is. The same is true with empathy. Read on.

Cognitive v. Affective Empathy

In general, there are two (2) main types of empathy. They are:

1. Cognitive Empathy - Refers to how well you are able to understand the emotions of another. By learning this, you are able to better communicate your thoughts to someone else because you can articulate pretty well the what, why, and how’s.

'I understand that you’re upset. Facing a job loss can be extremely draining because of loss of income and precursor to a future stressful job hunt. Times are tough, and I understand where you’re coming from.'

2. Emotional Empathy - On the other hand, this refers to your ability to share the emotions others are feeling. Learning how to empathize this way provides you with another set of perspective. It forges genuine connection because you’re able to feel the same way as others.

'I understand that you’re upset. Facing a job loss can be extremely draining. I, too, lost my job a year ago. It was the most stressful time of my life. I’m sure it’s pretty tough for you and I commiserate with this negative experience.'

Cognitive: 'I Understand why you'd feel that way' vs. Affective: 'Yes, that's horrible! I also feel the same way'

That said, it’s also important to understand that these two types of empathy are not hierarchies. Instead, they are part of one whole. You can understand why something is feeling sad (Cognitive), but not share the same feeling of distress (Emotional), vice versa.

Ultimately, what’s important is what you do with empathy. Consider this:

'I understand that you’re upset. Facing a job loss can be extremely draining. Last year, I also lost my job. It was very stressful because of the loss of income. Life may be difficult for you now, but rest assured that things can become better. I am here to offer you and support that I can.'

Learning how to be empathetic doesn’t end with knowing why someone else feels a certain way or sharing the same feeling. It ends with what actions you can take to help someone in need. You recognize someone is stuck, so you commiserate, share your vulnerabilities, and offer actionable support. This is how you build connections that last.

Utilizing Empathy in your Career

In navigating your career, empathy can take you far. Understanding your and others’ emotions is advantageous in a wide array of circumstances.

You are able to separate your own bias. You can leverage your connections and influence others. Your ability to put yourselves in someone else’s shoes will provide you with almost first-hand perspectives - all too essential in making sure you’re working towards the optimal solutions.

Lastly, empathizing genuinely with others will allow good people to gravitate towards you. They will share their successes with you. Provide you with opportunities because you are genuinely invested in their well-being. These connections will compound and redound to your benefit.

Woman in a yoga position. Showing empathy starts with yourself. Be at peace so you can resonate the same vibe.

And you can train to be more empathetic by being genuinely curious with others. It may not feel natural at first, but just like with everything, training will help you cultivate skills towards mastery. Learn to listen. Remove judgments. Mindful meditation 5-10 minutes a day also helps greatly. You become in tune with your own feelings and senses, that you’re able to do the same to others.

Add Empathy to your Career Skillset

Empathy, far from being just an emotional response, has proven its mettle as an invaluable professional tool. Leaders who prioritize understanding and valuing the emotions of their team foster trust, collaboration, and dedication.

While it's a skill rooted in our early years, the good news is that it's never too late to hone it. By practicing active listening, mindfulness, and genuine curiosity, we can better align our actions with the needs and feelings of those around us.

In a corporate world that can often feel detached, empathy is the bridge to meaningful, productive, and lasting relationships.

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