In a volatile and rapidly changing world, leadership needs to periodically and regularly take a step back and self-assess. Strategy, financial astuteness, mission, vision, values, delegation, influence, agility and communication… these are just a few of the skills that every leader must have and demonstrate.
We quite often segregate technical skills from soft skills, and more of than not, soft skills are a supplement to the technical ones – soft skills are acknowledged as being important but somehow are given a secondary status. In this changing and uncertain landscape compounded with the unprecedented times that we are in, empathy needs to be an essential skill and not an elective afterthought.
Why is empathy an essential skill, you may ask? It quite simply is the backbone of leadership. It enables you to know if your target audience is accessible, how wide your reach actually is as a leader; are all employees across the organisation being taken care of and if not, then why not? It empowers you to anticipate the impact your decisions and actions will have on the employee population at large and strategize off of that. Without empathy, you can’t build a tomorrow; your people are your core resource and competitive advantage which will nurture the next generation of leaders. You need to inspire followers and earn their loyalty. Empathy is the foundation in negotiations: it helps you to understand everyone’s desires and what their risk appetite is.
Let’s take a step back and look at what empathy means – Empathy is the ability to understand another person’s experience, point of view and feelings; it’s generally explained as the ability to put yourself in another person’s shoes. The tricky part is that it’s a fine line – you must make sure you are assessing how they would feel and not how you would feel in their shoes.
So now that we have a definition of the term, can we learn empathy? Well, to a degree. Not everyone is naturally gifted at quickly sensing other peoples’ experience, however some can are more than others. While we must demonstrate empathy, we need to walk a tight line when it comes to awareness of other people’s feelings; extremely high awareness of other peoples’ feelings will inhibit leadership’s decision making ability when it comes to making hard calls.
In times of recession and currently during the Covid 19 pandemic, downsizing, salary cuts and business closures have unfortunately become a necessity and the norm. While many organisations are more concerned about the bottom line, several have demonstrated exemplary empathy towards their employees which has worked remarkably well for their well-being and for their branding. Pepsi, Microsoft, Apple and Amazon are some of the big players who have put their employees first and have shown empathy ranging from paid 12 weeks of parental leave, work from home till Q4 of 2020 to extra financial benefits for frontline staff and for those who have been quarantined and to the extent of giving even unlimited leave to those who show symptoms of Covid 19.
We shouldn’t confuse empathy with being popular and making people feel good. Empathy is, in essence, a means of data collection that facilitates a better understanding of the human element of your business environment; this helps you to shape better approaches, influence, gain commitment and communicate with transparency. We must learn to keep people first because if our people are happy, they will keep our customers happy and who will in turn, keep the bottom line healthy.
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