Leadership empathy and vulnerability support a psychologically safe workplace that fosters employee and business growth.
Many people picture the stereotypical business leader as a smartly dressed individual exuding confidence, purely focused on numbers and profits. Showing “weakness” or emotion at work used to be frowned upon. However, research reveals leading with empathy and vulnerability enhances employee experiences and business outcomes.
How do vulnerability and empathy impact leadership? According to this Forbes article, the work culture created by implementing these skills makes leadership more effective and influences everything from employee satisfaction to work-life balance.
Taking your leadership role seriously means being willing to show your true self and seeing others for who they are. CEO of Washington Technology Industry Association Michael Schutzler states, “Whether you recognize it or not, every leader is playing a role. Authenticity comes from taking that role seriously. People need faith, trust, and confidence in their leaders to continue their efforts through doubt and uncertainty. Showing up as a human being that shows compassion for yourself and others creates the trust necessary for everyone to go the distance, together.”
This is especially important during hard times, as we’ve seen with the Covid pandemic. When things are uncertain or suddenly changing, employees need to know their concerns and needs are taken seriously. Leaders that are open about difficulties and willing to listen demonstrate they care.
From Strangers to Comrades
This Fortune article defines leadership “as the art of enabling others to achieve greatness.” Opening up, actively listening, and being compassionate facilitates this greatness.
When 58% of employees trust a stranger more than their own boss, according to a Harvard Business Review survey, it is easy to see the importance of integrating vulnerability and empathy into your leadership style. Here are some other benefits:
Engagement and productivity. If people are comfortable in their workspace, they are more likely to speak up when they have concerns or see a problem. Research supports that happier employees are more productive and deliver higher-quality work.
Innovation. When people aren’t afraid of how their boss will react to their thoughts or skeptical that they’ll even be listened to, creativity can flourish. Ideas can be played with, shared, and grown into plans.
Retention. EY Consulting found “90% of US workers believe empathetic leadership leads to higher job satisfaction and 79% agree it decreases employee turnover.” People are happier in supportive work cultures.
Customer Satisfaction. If your employees feel trusted and valued, they are more likely to pass those feelings on to customers through direct interactions at work, word of mouth, or social media. Higher satisfaction results in loyal customers who continue buying your products or services and recommending them to others.
Profits. EY Consulting found 81% of employees they surveyed believed empathy between employees and leaders increased company revenue.
Expressing Empathy and Vulnerability
Don’t feel like you're naturally good at showing empathy or being vulnerable? Here are a few ways to integrate these skills into your leadership style. Start small, follow through, and build your confidence over time.
1. Be an Active Listener: Look away from your devices and focus on what the other person is telling you. Ask clarifying questions to make sure you understand what they are trying to say.
2. Experience Other Roles: Whether it’s through role-playing during team-building exercises or going directly to the frontlines to watch, assist, and ask questions, experiencing what your coworkers go through daily will help you relate to them.
3. Use Cognitive and Emotional Empathy: Before taking action towards another employee, reflect on what they may be thinking and feeling. For example, ask yourself: If I were in their situation, what would I be thinking? If I was in their position, how would I feel?
An individual’s circumstances can affect their work. By trying to understand what they are thinking and feeling, you are better equipped to help them find solutions.
1. Be Honest and Transparent: If you’re having a hard time focusing at work because of family circumstances or something else, it’s okay to explain to your team why you’re not at your best.
Also, if the business is experiencing hardships, let others know. A study found “63% of employees who think their organization always openly shares the challenges facing it will strongly recommend it as a great organization to work for.”
2. Don’t Overshare: Being open is great, but it’s also important not to overshare. Before talking about something personal, determine if the situation warrants it. Will it help you? Will it help others? Vulnerability creates connection and trust, but oversharing makes others uncomfortable.
3. Know Your Company’s Mental Health Resources: Chances are you’re not a mental health expert. That’s okay. If someone under your leadership needs professional help, work to get them the assistance and resources they need.
Businesses are composed of people. You can’t take the “heart” out of them and expect workers to flourish. Leading with empathy and vulnerability creates a healthy workspace, helping employees and organizations overcome challenges while building an “all for one and one for all” culture.