Trust is at the heart of effective leadership – and the ability to empathise inspires trust

Leadership

What makes an effective business leader? Some leaders possess unique skills and characteristics that are difficult to define and even harder for others to replicate. According to Dr Natalie Ferres, a psychologist and director of strategic leadership firm Bendelta, it doesn’t matter who you are – you won’t succeed as a leader unless you inspire trust.

“Business leaders who inspire trust boost employee motivation and loyalty, which leads to better retention and a more innovative culture,” she said.

“When leaders allow mistrust to spread and fester, this leads to change cynicism, high turnover and a smorgasbord of other negative outcomes. Whether the organisations is big or small, performance will suffer.”

“It’s not a soft-skill, it’s undervalued” 

Dr Ferres told Dynamic Business that leaders are much more likely to inspire trust if they’re emotionally intelligent and show empathy.

“I often encounter senior leaders who equate empathy with emotion or being overly-emotional,” she said.

“Coupled with its close cousins of kindness, compassion and care, some see it as a soft-skill for soft people that gets in the way of achieving hard results. Empathy, as defined by these critics is unreliable, irrational and necessarily reactive. Yale Professor’s Paul Bloom’s case against empathy, published in the New Yorker, notes that, ‘we’re often at our best when we’re smart enough not to rely on it’. But I’d argue forcefully that leaders and managers at all levels need a good measure of empathy, paired with the ability to channel this empathy in a constructive way. Empathy is one of the most undervalued skills in leadership.”

“Leaders can develop empathy, but…”

Dr Ferres said that while leaders can develop emotional intelligence – including empathy – over time, people have different starting points depending on their personality and their life experiences.

“If people are motivated to build skills in these areas, understand what ‘good’ looks like, build the fundamentals such as sincere listening and asking great questions, and immerse ourselves in EQ/empathy building experiences and activities, we can see solid growth in these areas,” she said.

“Saying that, as with nearly every complex capability, it is usually better to select for deep interpersonal skills than it is to develop these skills, post-recruitment. But if you don’t have that luxury, you can work to build leadership skills in these areas.”

“Empathy is a tool in your toolkit” 

Dr Ferres identified the three types of empathy that leaders can implement:

  • Cognitive empathy: “Also known as ‘perspective-taking’, this is the ability to put yourself into someone else’s shoes. It’s rational and considered. The problem is, sociopaths can have this type of empathy before torturing someone (i.e. they share the victim’s perspective that this will hurt – they just don’t care!). And, away from sociopaths, a leader without the ‘feeling’ type of empathy tends to miss a lot of social cues and fail to consistently resonate with people.”
  • Emotional empathy: “This is where you understand and feel the other person’s emotions alongside them, that synchs others to you. Using empathy-building skills, recent neuroscience research tells us that you can quite literally flick a switch in another’s brain to connect at a subconscious level, opening up trust and influence. You can have empathy overload here, however, and self-control is required to manage your own emotional state.”
  • Compassionate empathy: “Often heralded as the best type of empathy, this is where a person is in tune with someone else’s pain but takes constructive action. As a leader of others, if you can imagine a person’s point of view (including a customer’s), aside from what you think of it, you can more effectively influence that person”.

“Empathising with your staff, your peers, your manager, and your customers won’t make you a soft mark,” Dr Ferres said.

“Empathy can give you more power and influence. Of course, you don’t have to be 100% empathic 100% of the time, but it’s something you’re better off having in your toolkit and dialling it down when necessary.”