December 5, 2016

Effective leaders put empathy before technology

Empathy is vital for good leadership but technology can get in the way. Leadership coach Mike Irving discusses the role of empathy in the workplace and how to build your skills.

A leader with empathy is more likely to attract a loyal and productive workforce, but technology and information overload can distract from its importance. Leadership coach Mike Irving shares his tips for boosting this vital leadership skill.

Technology has made it easier than ever to communicate with the world – but, when we’re talking face to face, it can be an unwelcome distraction.

“This is important because these simple conversations are the building blocks of empathetic relationships,” says recruiter, business owner and leadership coach Mike Irving. “When you’re fully engaged with the person you’re speaking to they feel worthy of your attention. If you’re constantly checking your phone, or glancing at your tablet or computer screen, you’re sending the message that you have better things to do.”

Irving believes that empathy – the ability to understand and share someone else’s feelings – is one of the most important characteristics of a great leader.

“Leadership isn’t about beating the drum and telling people what to do, it’s about building connections, building a team and ensuring that the members of the team are working together,” he says. “An empathetic person can communicate in a meaningful way with everyone at every level of the organisation and respond appropriately in any circumstances. This level of communication encourages trust, confidence and a sense of loyalty. Business owners who lack empathy often find it hard to retain staff – and often their best people are the first to leave.”

Every business is built around agreements – and these are most productive when they’re fair to both sides, says Irving.

“Take the example of flexible working hours. This type of agreement can only work if both the business owner and employees are 100 per cent clear about what this entails and then stick to that.

“But there’s evidence that some bosses expect their people to put in extra hours at home, or to be available round the clock. They’re not taking their employees’ needs outside the workplace into account, and this lack of empathy is bound to lead to resentment and dissatisfaction.”

A culture of appreciation

Employees want to feel recognised and appreciated for the work they do but, as Irving points out, there are two ways to feel valued.

“You can either wait for other people to acknowledge you or you can acknowledge your own worth,” he says. “If you wait to be told how well you’re doing you’re totally dependent on other people for how you feel. An empathetic boss creates a culture of mutual respect which works at a much deeper level than occasional praise.”

Learning through practice

Irving is concerned that many business leaders don’t give empathy a second thought.

“One reason is that the bedrock of empathy is communication – and we all assume we’re good at communicating because it’s something we do every day,” he says. “And empathy is rarely taught or even talked about, so people may not be aware of how much it could help them to achieve.”

He believes that anyone can become more empathetic with practice.

“When you’re having dinner with friends or at home with your family, put your phone and tablet away and engage with the others around the table,” he says. “Make eye contact, give them your full attention and really listen to what they’re saying with an intention to understand them. If you see every conversation as an opportunity to practice you will become more empathetic in every situation, including at work.”

Be fair to yourself

Irving also advises business owners to ‘auto empathise’ by paying attention to their own needs.

“Building a business is very hard work and most or all of the pressure is on you,” he says. “Too many business owners end up suffering from depression and anxiety because they’re too hard on themselves. It’s very important to acknowledge yourself for the agreements you’re keeping with yourself and others each and every day. If you don’t, you’re more likely to feel like the ball ricocheting around in a pinball machine than the person in control. This isn’t healthy and it isn’t a good way to lead.”

Mike Irving’s 5 quick tips for building empathy

  1. Put away your phone and tablet as soon as you start a conversation.
  2. Make eye contact.
  3. Give the person you’re talking to your full attention.
  4. Have a deliberate intention to understand what they mean.
  5. Treat every conversation as an opportunity to practice being empathetic.

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