Developing Your Talent

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Empathy: The Foundation of Strong Leadership

By Helene Cavalli on December 19, 2013

Empathy – the act of understanding and being sensitive to the feelings, thoughts and experiences of others – is an essential component of effective leadership. Respecting, considering and implementing another point of view through collaboration and two-way conversation is what makes organizations successful. So why is it that some leaders lose their sensitivity to others as they gain more power? Can they regain the ability to relate to other employees?

In her CNN.com article, Does power make you mean?, Susanne Gargiulo reports that there’s a scientific reason why we lose empathy as we gain power. As Gargiulo reports, studies by neuroscientists at the University of Southern California found that “feelings of increased powerfulness shut down our mirroring system – and potentially our empathy – through a default mechanism in our brains.” Empathy is higher “the more similar or relevant a person is to you in trait or grouping.” As a result, when leaders move into a higher position in the organization, they may have difficulty imagining themselves in another person’s shoes and relating to his or her experience. This proves to be problematic: the ability to relate to others builds trust and is fundamental to negotiation, conflict resolution, sales, coaching, training, teambuilding, consensus building, and communication.

Organizations can help leaders regain empathy via programs that assess and address the various components of emotional intelligence through individual coaching sessions. Great leaders are those who have empathy for their employees and model those behaviors for others in the organization. They can experience vicariously what employees are going through, understand why people may have different responses to the same situation, and appreciate that each of us looks at a situation through our own lens – based on our unique background, life and work experience, and point of view. All of which are immeasurably valuable in finding the best course of action when in the lead.

How would you rate your manager’s ability to demonstrate empathy?   Take our poll and weigh in.

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