Joanne Trotta
Managing Partner & Founder
Leaders Edge Inc.

By Joanne Trotta, Certified Emergenetics® Associate, CEO of Leaders Edge, Inc.

Self awareness, emotional intelligence, flexibility, dependability, communication and an ability to work well with others are all examples of soft skills. If you have been reading my posts, others on the Emergenetics blog as well as those of other experts in the leadership space, you know that skills like these are becoming increasingly important in the modern workplace. Emergenetics put together an eBook on the topic. And, I wrote recently about how soft skills and the creation of a coaching culture are critical elements for building and sustaining successful organizations.

In that piece, I noted how Google — one of the most successful companies in history — analyzed their personnel and found that the most productive and engaged members of its teams were those who possessed well-developed soft skills like those I mentioned above. As a result of its findings, Google began to hire not only those who brought impressive STEM (Science, Technology, Engineering and Math) skills to the table, but also those who demonstrated high scores for soft skills.

If Google is emphasizing soft skills, you know that it’s a topic worth paying attention to if you want to improve how your organization operates, right?

Understanding the importance of soft skills and actually improving them are two different things, though. And many leaders are troubled by an inability to transform their intellectual understanding of soft skills into behaviors and practices that guide their organizations forward.

Take empathy. It’s a quality that most would agree is essential to positive human interactions, inside and outside of the office. However, leaders don’t always know how to tap into their empathy, nurture it and use it as a crucial part of their professional lives.

Why Empathy Is Important for Leaders

I want to share some advice for how leaders like you can improve empathy. First I think it’s a good idea to take a look at why it’s so important. In terms of the Emergenetics Attributes, empathy is most closely connected with the Social Attribute. People with a Social preference tend to be relational and empathic, and they enjoy connecting with and working through others.

Empathy is defined simply as “the ability to understand and share the feelings of another.” Some people describe empathy as the ability to put oneself in another person’s pair of shoes. Sounds simple, doesn’t it?

Unfortunately, it isn’t.

Some leaders place less of a focus on empathy because they think it’s too “touchy-feely” for the serious businesses they are trying to run. If this describes your feelings about empathy, consider that the United States Army mentions empathy as an essential quality numerous times in its Field Manual on Leader Development.

If empathy isn’t too “touchy-feely” for the U.S. Army, then I can guarantee it’s not too “touchy-feely” for your organization!

Empathy can improve your leadership in a variety of ways:

  • It gives you the ability to know if you are truly reaching the people you’re communicating with
  • It gives you a sense of how your actions and decisions will impact your people
  • It helps you build teams of people who are more likely to work effectively together
  • It gives you an extra spark of humanity that encourages loyalty and helps you inspire people to follow you
  • Empathy is highly valuable when it comes to negotiation because it helps you understand the other side’s wants and needs, giving you the ability to make deals where everyone wins
  • According to studies, when leaders empathize with their employees, satisfaction and engagement increase significantly.

While I could go on at length about the importance of empathy, I think you get the picture. The bottom line is that empathy cannot be considered a “nice to have” in modern organizations. It’s absolutely critical.

Why Is Empathy so Difficult These Days?

Daniel Goleman, who is known for coining the term “emotional intelligence,” recently wrote an article about why empathy is lacking so much in modern interactions.

I encourage you to read the piece yourself. In the article, Goleman points out something I think is really interesting: Our brains were designed for face-to-face interactions, which give us the opportunity to respond to communication in a much more empathetic manner.

When we talk with each other face to face, our brains take the words, expressions and context of our interactions into account in ways that inhibit negative impulses and improve the ability to understand.

When we interact with people in the online world — which is becoming the default mode of communication — something is lost. We miss out on the cues that would otherwise trigger our empathy.

This situation manifests in a number of ways. How many times, for example, did you think someone was furious with you based on an email they sent, when, in reality, they felt no such emotion? How many times has someone misconstrued your tone in a text or some other online communication? It happens all the time these days, doesn’t it?

The fact is that digital communications create different responses in people, which pushes empathy to the sidelines in favor of quick judgments.

Yes, our world is becoming increasingly digitized and impersonal; however, empathy doesn’t have to marginalized. There are steps leaders can take to ensure that interactions are civil, human and productive.

How Modern Leaders Can Improve Their Empathy

If you are ready to improve your leadership — and your organization’s fortunes — by tapping into the Social Attribute and improving your empathy, here’s what you can do:

Make Communications More Personal

Our digital communications don’t have to be free from empathy. You can coach your people to be more personable and understanding with each other when communicating. I would also suggest increasing the personal nature of online communications, as well.

Video conferencing is a great way to inject the crucial face-to-face element into modern conversations, especially when meetings involve team members who work remotely. Even phone calls, which allow you to pick up on audible conversational cues, are an improvement over emails and texts when it comes to empathy.

I would also suggest that you make meetings as distraction-free as possible. People should be discouraged from using their devices excessively, and they should refrain from multitasking when communication is happening.

Additionally, I would take Daniel Goleman’s advice for email — err on the side of making them more personal in nature, which will reduce the effect of negativity bias.

Practice Paying Attention

This is where a healthy sense of self-awareness will come in handy. The next time you’re interacting with someone, pay attention to how you’re paying attention to them. Are you just nodding and pretending to listen? Are you giving vague visual or audible cues? Are you listening actively and showing the other person that you’re engaged with what they are saying?

Your one-on-one interactions with people will provide a tremendous opportunity to gauge and improve your empathy.

Check Your Input

The things we read, watch and pay attention to influence our communications significantly. Therefore, when you only consume content that’s focused on the head instead of the heart, you forget to exercise your empathy muscle. I recommend reading more personal stories and consuming content that describes emotions and relationships. Doing so will put you in a headspace that’s much more conducive to empathy.

Be More Curious

Asking questions is a great way to get others to open up, and it shows that your communications have taken into account the human being in front of you (or on the other side of the email). The more you ask questions and demonstrate authentic curiosity, the more you will grow your sense of empathy. You will learn more in your interactions this way, and you will strengthen relationships with the people you depend on to make your organization succeed.

Are You Ready for an Empathy Boost for Your Leadership?

Empathy is without a doubt one of the most essential soft skills for leaders to possess these days, and it’s also one of the most difficult to improve. The advice I gave here will put you on the right path!

And, if you have more questions, leave a comment below or send me an email at joanne.trotta@leadersedgeinc.ca.