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Why is empathy an essential skill for a manager?

Empathy is THE skill to develop for a manager. It's not just me saying it! This is the observation of the American consulting firm Development Dimensions International (DDI), which has surveyed more than 15,000 leaders in 300 companies across 18 countries for more than a decade. A report it published in 2016 indicated that the leadership skill that stood out above the rest in determining a leader's success was empathy. That's music to my ears! According to this research, managers who listen and respond with empathy perform more than 40% higher than others in terms of overall performance, coaching, engagement rates and planning,

organization and decision-making. Is that so surprising? How does empathy translate in a management context? And how can it be developed?

  

How does empathy translate in a management context?

Empathy in management is not synonymous with being hypersensitive or emotional. Rather, it is the ability to put ourselves in the shoes of our employees, colleagues, boss, or clients in order to understand their perspective, even if we do not necessarily recognize ourselves in the situation they are experiencing. It's about being sensitive to the needs, emotions and experiences of others without feeling them ourselves or taking them on our shoulders.

Empathy, in a management context, means, among other things, understanding our employees' needs for coaching, latitude, support, follow-up, communication and development. Being able to intervene with empathy allows us to solve problems and issues and to grasp the dynamics in place. However, I believe that it is still too often underestimated.

 

Using emotions as a source of additional information

The emotions of our colleagues, our employees, our customers are an important source of information to better understand a situation, a source that is just as important as factual analysis and figures. They add to the context to give us a much broader and more complex understanding of our business environment.

Let's take the example of a manager who must implement a change in his sector. By being empathetic, he will have a consultative approach, he will hear both the enthusiasm and the fears and concerns of his employees. Throughout the process, he will communicate with an awareness of the adjustment that is being asked of his team members, taking into account what is being felt rather than putting it aside. This manager will therefore have in hand additional elements to optimize his change and communication, he will be able to address and defuse issues. Employees will necessarily feel valued and involved in the project, thus significantly increasing the chances of success.

Empathy allows us to become better change agents, to communicate better, to connect with people, to build trust, to rally teams, to resolve conflicts, to better understand our clients and to improve our team results.

 

An exercise to develop our empathy

Developing our empathy is an everyday challenge in a world where we have often learned to manage through our expertise rather than our interpersonal skills. 

I like to do a simple exercise that gives me a new perspective to develop my empathy. I suggest doing it before a feedback, performance meeting, potentially emotional conversation or conflict management meeting. 

Take a few minutes to do a role-play before your meeting, in your head or even physically, for example by changing chairs in your office. Get the message instead of the other person. The most difficult part is to really put yourself in the shoes of the other person, integrating their perspective, intentions, background, personality and communication style. So ask yourself:

  •  How would I feel in the shoes of the other person if I received that feedback or message?
  • How can I put myself more in the shoes of the other person to understand their perspective, their intention?
  • How does this exercise make me adjust my communication? 

Cultivating our empathy on a daily basis makes us better managers, colleagues and collaborators for those around us. It also makes us better contributors to the success of our organization. Let's not deprive ourselves of this! I'd like to conclude with a thought-provoking suggestion. What does it mean for you to show more empathy in your role as a manager? And how can you practice being more empathetic on a daily basis?

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