Empathy Is a Key to Successful Management

How important is empathy to successful management? Very important, according to one study on the topic.

The research, from DDI, found that empathy (the ability to understand and share the feelings of another) is a  “critical driver of overall performance” for management.

In the study, “listening and responding with empathy” was highly correlated with key management skills including coaching, engaging, and making sound decisions, as well as overall performance.

Despite this importance, the study also concluded that only “40% of frontline leaders” were “proficient or strong in empathy.”

In short, there was a substantive gap between a valuable management attribute and the common possession of that attribute.

No time for empathy

Empathy is often regarded as one of those “soft” leadership skills (unlike, say, authority, technical prowess, or the ability to present effectively to an audience the size of a small city). But when you consider that effective management is all about accomplishing work through others, it’s shortsighted to dismiss it too quickly.

“We know from research that empathy is on the decline,” says Bianca McCann, the Chief Human Resources Officer at BetterWorks, who has studied the subject. “That’s unfortunate considering it’s one of the most critical capabilities needed to lead and drive employee engagement in a diverse, dispersed and constantly changing environment. Having powerful empathetic conversations is a critical piece of being a great manager, and to truly hear the employee, deep listening and suspended judgment are needed skills. Yet in the busy world in which managers are entrenched, both of these skills are a real challenge.”

Hard to demonstrate ROI 

Having been in Fortune 500 management for nearly a quarter century, I fully understand the typical hard-boiled business person’s reluctance to focus too much on empathy. Yep, at first glance sounds like something that belongs in a Psychology curriculum more than an MBA course. It’s hard to show ROI on. We want our managers tough not weak. Results not relationships. And so on. I get it. I’ve lived it.

But on the other hand, the typical hard-boiled business person sure does want employees who are loyal, hard-working and productive. Yet current management at a macro-level tends to be mired in numbers that show only around 30% of employees fully engaged, with the remaining 70% functioning at some level of “going through the motions” to indifference to downright problematic. Not exactly a ringing endorsement of overall managerial success.

As a manager I don’t believe I ever really thought much about “empathy” per se. I was probably too busy trying to keep my head above water to articulate it that way. But I did believe in getting to know my employees individually, and trying (not always successfully) to have some understanding of what was going on in their lives and to gain at least some insight into what motivated them.

And I would definitely say that the most effective managers I knew — front front-line to CEO — were individuals who invariably were able to connect with their employees… and did have an understanding of what made them tick

After all, as noted earlier, management is the science of accomplishing work through others. Easy to forget, but always worth bearing in mind.

This article first appeared at Forbes.com.



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