Leadership Skill

Integrating the ‘Human’ in Management: Empathy as a Key Leadership Skill

To become a leader, you must first become a human being.” – Confucius

The workplace has transformed is old news. What is new, however, are the innumerable implications of workplace and work culture transformation. With each passing day, dimensions change, questioning the relevance of older workplace dynamics.

Given the significance of the C-suite at the workplace, the need for transformation in the leadership approach is perhaps one of the most significant implications.

The conventional belief was that human emotions, such as empathy or vulnerability, and leadership don’t gel well. A leader needed to appear stoic at the workplace, with no place for emotions in the professional sphere. If you harbored sentiments, you’d fall on your own sword.

Today, it’s a different scenario altogether. With the acceptance of work from home as a part of workplace culture, socio-economic developments such as awareness of DEI or environment-consciousness, technological advancements, the rise of a new generation in Gen Z with different aspirations, and, to top it all, an uncertain macro-environment, the paradigm of leadership has changed.

Going by trends in the industry, soft skills such as empathy, self-development, team development, and ethical practices have emerged as decisive as hard/technical skills in determining the success of leaders. This shows the transformation towards a progressive approach with regard to leadership abilities.     

Leaders can no longer afford to carry only their rational self to work. To integrate with their employees and to build an inclusive workplace, they have to bring out the radical human being in them. Only a humane leader can connect with their employees.

Empathy and vulnerability are two of the most effective ways in building connection. These make a leader approachable and relatable for effective employee engagement. This is the core of a thriving workplace culture, which is essential to build successful operations, productivity, employee retention and bottom line.  

But, is it easy to show the human side at the workplace?

Perhaps not. Because the biggest barrier is self-perception. How can a leader show vulnerability in the workplace? A leader cannot be seen as weak.

What is the way forward?

The only way forward is to change with the changing times. Flexibility is the hallmark of great leadership. And given the criticality of adopting a progressive approach with the human aspect as the pivot, it’s no longer a matter of choice for leaders.

How can the C-suite consciously shape themselves to become more empathetic human leaders?

Go to the source of wisdom. Introspect – from the self and organizational perspectives.

You must look into the mirror first if you want to change the reflection. A leader needs to know himself/herself in and out.

How are you as a person? What are your strengths or weaknesses in terms of soft skills? When making a note, don’t be arrogant in jotting down the areas of development. No one is perfect. In fact, the more honest you are about identifying your personality traits, the better the scope for working on these.  

This will also create more opportunities for you to grow. When you work on your people skills, it only enhances your capabilities to address challenging situations. For instance, if you are working on conflict management, it will improve you as a negotiator. This is like a key to lock in facilitating coordination/collaboration.

Assess your approach to hurdles or challenges. We are all welcoming of success. How we face failures shapes us more.

What is your stand? Do you see failure as a stepping stone to success or a punishable offence? What has been your attitude when results were not in sync with the expectations? Did you focus on the takeaways? Was it course-correction-centric, or did you get entangled in the blame game?

How do you reward people for their efforts?

How often do you communicate with your employees? What are the methods? How accessible are you to them?

What are your thoughts on the empowerment of employees?

Assess how your organization fares. Do your employees feel empowered for experimenting with ideas, or is a lack of empathy stifling their creativity? How will you determine the answer? And, if it is a no, what could be the factors and how would you redress?

How often do you discuss issues such as these with your immediate team and the broader reporting heads? 

When you do deep-diving along multiple lines, you get a clear picture of effective you are as a human leader.   

Develop the power to apply it. Another half of introspection is to increase your knowledge about the requirements. Just knowing where you are is not enough. You must know as a leader where you should be – and how to cover the distance.

So, read as extensively as you can on leadership qualities and how to develop these. Tap all the resources available. One such potent source is social media. You get to know the current trends in leader-employee engagement, aspirations of the workforce, and how to address both.

You must be abreast with the latest if you are looking to grow as a person. Find out about the past and current success and failure stories of organizations and assess how people-centricity, or the lack of it, played a role in the outcomes.

Ask for suggestions for ideas. Talk to people in your team or your own mentors, or those whose opinion you value. Look up their work. Understand how the concept of people skills and their application has changed.

Training is a great tool in knowledge or skill development. What stops you from further enhancement of leadership skills through training or relevant learning programs and courses? Leverage these tools to expand your understanding.

If self-help is not enough, you hire the services of leadership coaching and mentoring service providers such as Vantedge Search. We specialize in executive coaching centered on leadership qualities and people skills. We facilitate leadership development, onboarding, and career & role transition. Our bespoke and strategic coaching support is a mix of a result-oriented, project-based framework that includes best-in-class assessment, 360-degree feedback, smart goal-setting, reviews, and action plans.

Bridge the goal with accomplishments. Be the role model you envision through discipline and rigor.

Adopt the right behavior. Be empathetic. Reach out to people. Take all the steps required to empower your employees. Assess the gaps and plug the loopholes. Encourage them to open up.

Some things you can do are:

  • Be accessible. Be visible. Take time out of your schedule to connect with people.
  • Even in a meeting or discussion, you can always connect a little first before plunging in, a casual catch-up here and there (especially in online sessions), indulge in a few not-so-formal discussions, and open up to people.
  • Listen more, speak less. Employees open up to receptive leaders. And when you speak, confine yourself only to what is relevant. So, if you need to boost the morale, talk about how you faced and overcame challenges, or how you deal with your vulnerabilities. Don’t talk about your successes or accomplishments in that way that may seem you are bragging.   
  • Ask for feedback, suggestions, opinions, ideas. Implement these as and when you can.
  • Be generous in rewarding and commending people for their achievements.
  • Be discreet in course correction. Even if you have to, do it in private.
  • Be available. Especially when your team is fighting a crisis, such as an economically uncertain environment. You may not have all the answers, but just that you are there will mean a lot to someone facing either a personal loss or a setback on the professional front.
  • Talk and educate your immediate team, or other stakeholders across the reporting structure, on practicing empathy. Address biases as soon as you spot. The more you talk, the more it will spread consciousness about it. But most important, walk the talk. Nothing works better in sending out the intended message.
  • Don’t restrict yourself to lip-servicing employee empowerment. Provide them the infrastructure in terms of resources, skill development and leadership support for physical and psychological safety to help them reach their full potential. Be the individual who keeps their word–living up to expectations and keeping trust are authentically human acts.

To conclude

In the present-day business world, leadership has undergone a drastic transformation. There is a requirement for a new breed of leaders who are fundamentally human and progressive. Focus on tasks and goals alone is not sufficient, rather stands redundant. Development and growth of people are at the core of organizational development today. An organization with a workplace culture that facilitates empowerment and engagement will survive and thrive.

Leadership, therefore, hinges primarily on developing the right people-centric mindset. It is about changing your approach to becoming a leader, from exercising cold authority to influencing by inspiring.

This can only happen when leaders connect with their people at a human level, not sitting on some high horse. A leader who is as much human as the employees he/she leads, who is flexible, empathetic, perceptive of the ever-changing scenario and, above all, not shy of showing their vulnerability. The more human you are, the more your employees will rally behind.

When you apply this mindset to all aspects of your profession, whether it is in C-suite boardroom dealings or across the organization, you become the change you want to see in others.   

Given the people-centricity of organizations today, you cannot deny your human side to your employees. Having an authentic human leader is the fundamental right of every employee.