I Understand How You’re Feeling.


I’m guessing that many of you (myself included) may be challenged to recall a time, when a manager  or supervisor said the following words, “I understand how you’re feeling about this.”

Those simple words demonstrate empathy, an attribute which has been highly regarded by researchers as a key skill for leadership success.  Ernest Wilson defined empathy in his recent Harvard Business Review article as, “a deep emotional intelligence” with strong connections to culture that allows people to, “see the world through others’ eyes and understand their unique perspectives.” (HBR, 2015) Wilson went on to show through his research, that despite the connections to success, empathy was oftentimes lacking in many leaders (HBR 2015).

Leadership Coach and Blogger, Tanveer Naseer reminds leaders to try (when possible) to understand and appreciate the feelings that could be impacting on the perceptions of others. Naseer offers up a handful of reasons why demonstrating empathy is challenging for some leaders.

  • Demonstrating empathy is hard; it’s takes time and effort to achieve awareness & understanding.
    • It’s not always easy to understand why an employee thinks or feels the way they do about a situation.
    • It often means putting others ahead of yourself which  is difficult in a competitive workplace.
    • Many organizations aim to  achieve business goals no matter what the cost to employees.

Yet despite the challenges identified,  in today’s workforce, office relationships can greatly influence employee behaviour and performance and while “task oriented skills”(Gentry,Weber & Sadri, 2007)  are important to the operations of an organization, there is a higher need that must also be considered.   When a leader demonstrates empathy by truly listening to clarify  needs, with the intention to properly address employees’ concerns (Gentry,Weber & Sadri, 2007) that leader, has consciously shifted the intention to what really matters— People.

Developing empathy requires managers and leaders to move beyond the act of hearing, and towards  listening for the sole purpose to understand.  Leaders who are able to, “understand others and sense what they are feeling”(Gentry et al, 2007) are often more adept at interpreting employee behaviours  that can surface when there is a lack of appreciation and understanding about an issue. Failing to develop empathy skills can damage working relationships and ultimately reduce trust levels within the organization. 

But all is not lost!

For those in the leadership world who struggle with reading or dealing with emotions or have disregarded the value of empathy…it can be learned.Leaders interested in investing in their employees and building leadership capacity are encouraged to provide coaching and training opportunities that reinforce the value of empathy as an important tool for building and achieving success.

Read all about empathy by visiting the following links:

Sources and Resources:

A White Paper: Empathy in the Workplace-  A tool for Effective Leadership By William A. Gentry, Ph.D., Todd J. Weber, Ph.D., and Golnaz Sadri, Ph.D.

Empathy is Still Lacking in the Leaders That Need It Most -HBR Article September 21, 2015

Empathy in Leadership:10 Reasons Why it Matters – Blog

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