When you think of the best managers or leaders you’ve ever worked with, what do you think of? Chances are, they weren’t overly egotistical, controlling, or mean.
Instead, perhaps they had a knack for recruiting and retaining top talent. For getting the best performance out of their team. For making good decisions and getting everyone rowing in the same direction.
According to Maria Ross, author of The Empathy Edge, these characteristics of great leaders all grow out of something we don’t always associate with strong leadership: Empathy.
Ross says that in her work as a leadership and brand consultant, she developed a hunch that empathy was playing a bigger role than was commonly understood, and she set out to build the business case for it. Her research led her to more research which led to more research, and ended in her book, The Empathy Edge.
In it, she lays out the extensive research demonstrating empathy as a critical business and leadership skill.
“The data and research all shows that empathetic leaders lead higher performing teams,” she says. “They attract top talent, retain best performers, breed more creativity and innovation, and lower turnover costs. Empathetic brands create more customer loyalty, more word of mouth, and deliver right-fit products and services.”
And, she says, empathy is just as important for sales professionals and leaders.
“When I was researching for my book and speaking to leaders and experts, everyone had their own definitions of empathy,” says Ross. “Even the dictionary definition has changed over time as we understand things more.”
But for Ross, the key to empathy is the ability to see things from another person’s perspective. When you see it in your mind’s eye and understand it, she calls this “cognitive empathy.” Sometimes, but not always, cognitive empathy will lead to emotional empathy, which is when you also feel what the other person feels.
She’s careful to differentiate between empathy and lack of boundaries. She says that having empathy doesn’t mean that you always agree with the other person or give in to their demands. It only means that you understand where they are coming from and why they think and feel the way that they do.
“Compassion is empathy in action,” says Ross. “When you practice empathy and then you decide to do something - whether to change your behavior, or communicate in a certain way - the action is the compassion component.”
Good leadership sometimes means making difficult decisions, such as firing or laying people off. How can you square that with the need to have empathy and compassion?
“One of the most empathetic bosses I ever had had to lay off the entire marketing team after an acquisition,” says Ross. “He had to do it, but his compassion and empathy was in the way that he did it, the way he communicated it to the team, and the support he provided.”
She says he didn’t just make the announcement and call it a day. He thought about what each individual team member would need and how he could support them in their next steps. He made his response individual to each person.
“This person had built and sold many companies over his career,” says Ross. “And he was someone who understands that the important thing is your connection with your people; seeing, hearing, and valuing them. He knows that’s how you get the best work out of them.”
How can you hold teams accountable while empathizing with them?
Ross says that empathy and compassion are not the same thing as being nice. You can be nice without ever really understanding the other person’s point of view.
And when it comes to holding people accountable, “nice” isn’t always the best way forward.
“One of the best ways a leader can strengthen their empathy muscle is by bringing it to a performance review with an underperforming team member,” she says. “You don’t condone the behavior, but you seek to understand it from the team member’s point of view.”
Instead of offering ultimatums and threats to get the employee to do better, you ask questions to try to understand what’s behind the poor performance. Are they struggling at home? Have they had a bad experience previously in their career that is interfering with their ability to perform?
Once you understand the situation from their point of view, you can work together toward constructive problem solving.
“Most leaders don’t take the time to do this,” says Ross, “because it seems like it’s easier to just make a decision and move on. But when you do take the time, it leads to better performing teams overall.”
An empathetic culture leads to better performance overall. Teams that feel heard and understood, and who know that their managers will work with them to resolve problems, are better able to perform, innovate, and grow.
For sales teams in particular, empathy is a powerful benefit because it enables salespeople to see problems and conversations from the point of view of the customer, and helps to reduce friction and resistance.
“Empathy is the #1 trait of successful salespeople,” says Ross. “That, combined with ambition. Empathy helps you pivot and adapt your sales pitch to what the customer needs.”
It additionally helps you anticipate objections, and problem-solve them together. Empathy can reduce resistance by creating a collaborative environment rather than a combative one.
“When you give someone something to push against, they’ll push against it,” says Ross. “But when you say, ‘I may not agree, but I see where you’re coming from and here are the merits of what you said,’ then people don’t have so much to push against.”
Ross presents the complete business case, along with extensive research and statistical evidence demonstrating the critical value of empathy in leadership and all aspects of business. You can find a copy at www.theempathyedge.com as well as listen to episodes of her podcast and learn more about her work.
I would love to hear how you flex your empathy muscle in your business and sales efforts. Connect with me by email or on LinkedIn to continue the discussion.
George is the founder & CEO of Membrain, the Sales Enablement CRM that makes it easy to execute your sales strategy. A life-long entrepreneur with 20 years of experience in the software space and a passion for sales and marketing. With the life motto "Don't settle for mainstream", he is always looking for new ways to achieve improved business results using innovative software, skills, and processes. George is also the author of the book Stop Killing Deals and the host of the Stop Killing Deals webinar and podcast series.
Find out more about George Brontén on LinkedIn