The Idea: Insecure leaders create impenetrable walls. In their world, thrones are challenged by strong personalities and opposing views. Across business, faith, and social communities, we have all been manipulated by top-down authoritative leadership. When team leaders claim to embrace opposing views but remain brittle and inflexible, they undermine empathy. The opposite of empathy is indifference, an apathetic approach to relationships.
Bill Drayton, the ‘father of social entrepreneurship,’ believes that “mastering empathy is the key business survival skill because it underpins successful teamwork and leadership.” People with great empathy have a third eye, seeing things others are too blind to notice. When practicing empathy, the goal is to not change a mind but to understand.
Empathy advisor and Cambridge University professor, Roman Krznaric, recently shared: “Empathy doesn’t stop developing in childhood. We can nurture its growth throughout our lives–and we can use it as a radical force for social transformation.” And yet, Krznaric says a “what’s in it for me?” approach has become the primary thinking mode of our time. We have forgotten the power of empathy and how it unlocks the moment with others. Over the last 40 years, some studies estimate a decline in empathy by 50 percent in the U.S. We don’t seek to understand and often resort to snap judgments, distancing ourselves from the truth and others.
Empathy is the heartbeat of all social discussions. Krznaric suggests trying these habits:
- Do you practice curiosity in all discussions? Find out “what makes them tick” – especially those most unlike ourselves. Krznaric reminds us to observe the natural curiosity of children and model their inquisitiveness. Learn to question everything. “Curiosity expands our empathy when we talk to people outside our usual social circle, encountering lives and world views very different from our own.” Curiosity expands context, broadening our scope and building empathy.
- Do you listen with vulnerability or do you suck up the oxygen in the room? People with high levels of empathy listen to others on an emotional level. They are also not afraid of becoming vulnerable with those who disagree, creating fervent bonds that encourage honest conversation. Vulnerability and empathy light the fire of creativity.
Alison Reynolds & David Lewis researched 150 senior executives to understand what drives high performing teams. The team discovered that higher levels of cognitive diversity and psychological safety were drivers supporting these cultures. The highest performing teams practice candid, safe conversations and model “truth-telling” cultures.
Research shows that teams without psychological safety never tap into the intellectual diversity of their organizations because they are too cautious and resistant to change.
Leaders with limited empathy do not create safe cultures and they fail to capitalize on the benefit of discourse within their organizations. They unconsciously create a culture of fear and anxiety.
Maya Angelou wrote, “There is no greater agony than bearing an untold story inside you.” Practicing empathy helps you understand another’s backstory and their true identity. Empathy is courageous and fearless and allows others the confidence to tell their story.
“Empathy is the antidote to shame.” – Brené Brown