The one crippling behavior that will cause you failure in leadership and in life, (and by life, I mean as a partner, a parent, a friend etc.) is the lack of empathy.

Empathy, which is a cornerstone of emotional intelligence, specifically social awareness, is often misunderstood as sharing other people’s emotions and concerns and caring deeply about them. That innate caring and concern is more representative of compassion.

Empathy, particularly in the realm of leadership, is about the willingness to genuinely and respectfully take the time to understand another person’s emotions and points of view and to use that understanding to create mutually beneficial relationships.

Empathy does not require agreement, liking someone or wanting someone to be your friend. It requires an intellectual curiosity that is unburdened by an over-active ego which is trying only to prove its own point.

It is said that we have 27 emotional experiences every hour, which is 500 emotional experiences daily. Emotions drive behavior. If we don’t understand our emotions and/or lack the ability to understand others, it is like driving a car with no wheels.

Emotions Drive Behavior: Ignore At Your Own Peril 

Leadership cannot be effective or sustainable without empathy because if we do not take the time to understand those whom we lead, we cannot create a relationship with them. Without a relationship, we cannot possibly understand what inspires them or how best to develop or deploy them to execute tasks.

The degree to which we are empathetic will directly correlate to the degree to which we can successfully manage teams, negotiate well, resolve conflict constructively, collaborate and inspire innovation. In fact, according to research done by the Center For Creative Leadership, the top five reasons executives fail in the first 18 months are directly tied to shortfalls in these areas, not to a leader’s lack of technical know-how.

Without empathy, getting work done through others becomes a long hard slog. If the lack of empathy on a leader’s part is severe, it can also cause a whiplash effect that can be as minor as passive aggressive behavior or as severe as sabotage; all points in between can cost real money and potentially derail a business.

The Best Performers Have The Highest Emotional Intelligence

Many people are leaders in their organizations but don’t have people reporting directly to them. Their leadership comes from their ability to influence others. Anyone who has ever tried to get buy-in from a boss, a Board or a life-partner, knows that without the ability to understand the other’s point of view, the chances of a successful outcome decrease dramatically.

How many of us have sat in meetings where we witness people trying to convince others who disagree with them by repeating their same arguments? The empathetically wise person doesn’t keep making the same points, they ask a few questions so that they can pivot and move the conversation forward:

  • What is it about my solution/proposal that doesn’t work for you?
  • What are you seeing that I may be missing?
  • What is it you want to see happen?

With empathetic questions such as these, we give ourselves the opportunity to gain insight into what is motivating, worrying or of priority to the other party. This leads to gaining intelligence with which we can negotiate win/win solutions.

We Are On A Slippery Slope 

The problem is that empathy is on a sharp decline. An article in Scientific American cites a study done by Sara Konrath of the University of Michigan, Ann Arbor which found that there was a 40% decline in college students’ self-reported empathy. During that same time, research done by Jean Twenge, a psychologist at San Diego State, found students’ self-reported narcissism is reaching new heights. And according to Konrath, Obrien and Hsing, there is a direct correlation between the rise in narcissism and decline in empathy because narcissism results in the diminished willingness and ability to be empathetic.

The very salient point here is that the people studied in this research are the group from which our future leaders will emerge. My hypothesis is that this generation does not inherently lack empathy. I believe that it is an unintended consequence of having been the first generation who have grown up completely immersed in technology and social media. No matter what the cause, it is paramount that we shift this trend.

6 Ways to Develop Empathy 

The good news is that empathy is a competency that can be developed. With practice, we can literally create new neural pathways that can make empathy a strength and a habit.

Here are some fun things to develop greater empathy skill:

  1. Read literary fiction including short stories. Yes, you read that right. Psychologists David Comer Kidd and Emanuele Castano, at the New School for Social Research in New York, have proved that reading literary fiction enhances the ability to detect and understand other people’s emotions, which is crucial in navigating complex social relationships. Unfortunately, over the past 10 years the number of adults who read literature for pleasure has sunk to below 50%, its lowest point ever. The decline is occurring most sharply among the same group studied in the aforementioned research, college age adults. Raymond Mark of York University in Toronto has also shown that adults who read less fiction report themselves to be less empathetic. So drop the guilt and put your feet up and read.
  2. Pretend to be an anthropologist. Watch and listen to people when you are waiting to see the doctor or in the line at the bank or grocery store. Practice seeing if you can pick up their emotions and what kind of day they’re having. Talk with them and see if you read it right. This requires intentionally putting your phone away and relating live and in the moment with others.

These things will require real discipline and behavior change:

  1.  Measure your current level of empathy. You can do this by getting the book Emotional Intelligence 2.0 by Travis Bradberry  and Jean Greaves Take the assessment for free and use the book to put together a development plan and work the empathy muscle.
  2. Make a deliberate plan to cut back on social media and technology and interact personally with people more. Increase it daily.
  3. Stop hiding behind email and texts when conversations are uncomfortable. It is the worst time to use email and texts and usually results in an escalation of a situation that would have been resolved more efficiently with a phone call or face to face discussion.
  4. For every meeting you are going into where you are trying to influence the outcome, do research on your audience and prepare several questions beforehand that will help you understand the different points of view in the room so that you can navigate successful compromises and/or resolutions.

Empathy is not only a foundational skill for leadership but for being a responsible citizen of the world. Remember, whatever success you experience as a leader, a partner, a friend or a parent is going to expand or contract with your ability to be empathetic.

Sheila Madden is the CEO of Madden Coaching & Consulting and Author and Founder of Craving Fiction: Short Stories For Busy People.

Copyright 2017, Sheila Madden. All Rights Reserved