Is empathy the most important leadership skill? How we build empathy in our teams in Secret Source

15th August 2022

Is empathy the most important leadership skill?

If you Google “what is the most important leadership skill?” you’ll be told it might be communication or high ethical standards, organisational or motivational skills. Yet research during and after the pandemic shows that empathy is now more important than ever and definitely a skill needed in every good leader’s toolkit.

Empathy has always been important but now, rather than being regarded as just a necessary soft skill, it is being shown that it can drive significant business results impacting everything from innovation to retention.

The results of the Catalyst study showed that:

  • Empathy is a force for productivity, life-work integration, and positive work experiences.
  • Empathy boosts productivity.
  • Employees with empathic managers and leaders are more innovative and engaged in their work than are employees with less empathic managers and leaders.
  • Women of colour experience less burnout when they have more empathic senior leaders.
  • Empathic leaders respect employee life circumstances.
  • Empathic leaders support both life and work needs.
  • Empathic leaders foster inclusion.
  • Senior leader empathy is linked to reduced intent to leave.

However, for us, the most significant effect empathy has on our business is that it just makes us happier. We’ve found that when a culture promotes empathy, teams are just happier and when teams are happier they are more innovative, more productive and tend to stick together because they enjoy working with each other.

However we’ve also seen that empathy doesn’t come naturally to many people and it is often very difficult for some to appreciate how others are thinking. Just look at the left / right divides in the UK and USA at the moment. 

At Secret Source we understand that empathy can be difficult for some and that, if not addressed, can lead to a reduction in psychological safety because when someone feels they are not being listened to it can have a very negative effect not just on that person but on the team as a whole. 

There are a couple of simple techniques that we use to help our teams.

  1. Be Curious not judgemental

We are great fans of the teachings of Ted Lasso and one of his most important lessons is to “Be Curious and not judgmental” so we try to approach all conversations from a position of curiosity and we try to always listen before making a judgement. We’ve found that by taking this approach it is much easier to be empathetic. All our 1:1s focus on listening first before offering solutions.

  1. Help me understand

There will always be times when, however much you listen, it is difficult to see the other person’s point of view. A technique that we use to be more empathetic is to use the phrase “help me understand”, it communicates humility, curiousness and a genuine interest in understanding the other person’s perspective. Next time you are in a position of conflict before trying to push your point of view again, try really trying to understand the other person first.

Being empathetic all the time is difficult and takes time and effort to improve those skills. However if you lead from the top and try to embed it into your culture the results will be amazing.
If you’re interested in how we build psychological safety in our teams or how we’ve built our happiness first culture please follow us on LinkedIn to get our regular blog updates.