How leaders can build empathy

This is a good news/bad news story. The good news was having the fun of working in Accra, in Ghana, for a week, running development centres to focus on leadership behaviours. The fact that it was in the midst of the worst weather in England for a long time was a bonus. The bad news was coping with an infected foot, which left me only able to limp along very slowly and for short distances.

I was committed to the trip, so contacted British Airways, in the hope they could arrange one of those golf carts to take me around Heathrow. The only option they had was a wheel chair, so, with a foretaste of things to come in my dotage, I settled in and surrendered myself to the kind support of my minder. It was marginally embarrassing to travel thus, especially as the chap pushing me was about 20 years older than me and, apart from the foot, in worse shape.

When we arrived in Ghana, everyone I met who noticed my pronounced limp asked what had happened and all of them said “I’m sorry” – almost as if it were their fault – in such a genuine way that I felt they were really empathising with me. We were running a development centre for high potential leaders and the leadership model we use has empathy as one of the core behaviours. Leaders who have high levels of empathy will build high performing teams. It reminded me that some people have these behaviours at some innate level. The good news for the rest of us is that we can all develop and hone these skills

The research was done by Harry Schroder, Professor of Clinical Psychology at Princeton University. The model uses specific behaviours that have been shown to predict superior performance when people are faced with dynamic, fast-moving, complex situations. In other words, when the working environment is competitive and changing quickly, the Schroder model identifies the leaders who will take their teams or organisations on to not only survive, but thrive.

There’s 4 main clusters of behaviours – around thinking, involving, inspiring and doing. A leader needs to have a vision, recruit a team, inspire them and then deliver. We combine this with an innovative multi-rater feedback system ( a 360 degree tool) called my360plus.

It fits in really well with our leadership coaching model, as it is very much strength based. We encourage leaders to discover the behaviours they have strengths in, and focus on building those – if you have an innate level of empathy, build it to a real strength.

Here’s a few tips:-

  • Listen to understand the views of others – even when these differ from your own
  • During meetings with staff, find out how people are thinking and feeling
  • Clarify understanding of what others say in meetings, forums, and one-to-ones – by asking open questions (what, how, who, when, where)?
  • Ask others to explore their own thinking and assumptions to gain their input
  • In situations of agreement, enquire about what led the other person to that view to seek a better understanding

It’s been a fascinating week, working with some great leaders with potential. And the toe is slowly improving – thanks in no small part to the empathy shown by so many people I met

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