Developing Leadership Empathy: Key to Success

In 2009, business writer Karl Albrecht published a five-part model of social intelligence in his book Social Intelligence: the New Science of Success, cleverly defined with the acronym “S.P.A.C.E.”:

  1. Situational awareness
  2. Presence
  3. Authenticity
  4. Clarity
  5. Empathy

Popular science writer Daniel Goleman has drawn on social neuroscience research to propose that social intelligence is made up of social awareness (including empathy, attunement, empathic accuracy, and social cognition) and social facility (including synchrony, self-presentation, influence, and concern).

According to Goleman, empathy represents the foundation skill for all the social competencies important for leadership work:

  1. Understanding others: sensing others’ feelings and perspectives, and taking an active interest in their concerns
  2. Service orientation: anticipating, recognizing and meeting customers’ needs
  3. Developing others: sensing others’ development needs and bolstering their abilities
  4. Leveraging diversity: cultivating opportunities through diverse people
  5. Political awareness: reading the political and social currents in an organization

Those are pretty important skills for anyone to acquire, but especially for up-and-coming managers who inspire to become high-level leaders.

These are not competencies that one is born with, and they can be developed. However, certain traits can mean that a person is more adept at developing their social intelligence. For example, an extrovert is more likely to be drawn into situations that afford practice and development of interpersonal skills.

Conversely, an introvert may feel they are lacking in natural social skills and instead, may make more effort to practice and acquire social intelligence.

What about empathy skills? Can they be learned? Some research indicates that women may have more mirror neurons in their brains, which naturally predisposes them to experiencing greater empathy. Mirror neurons have been implicated in the ability to feel what someone else may be experiencing.

Male/Female Brain Differences

It makes sense: when our ancestor cavemen were hunting down prey on the savannas of East Africa, the men needed to keep the focus on the goal. It was kill or be killed. Any distractions or feelings like empathy might mean the difference between life and death, eating or starving.

Women, on the other hand, needed to tend to the children. Their intuitive skills helped them know what young children needed before they could vocalize words.

Which is why men in general tend to be more goal-oriented and focused, but can sometimes miss important clues to the social environment.

Focus and Goals vs. Empathy

Managers and leaders are usually high in those traits and characteristics that lead to successful goal completion, such as high achievement orientation and high focusing abilities. That’s why they get promoted to leadership positions.

Success depends a great deal on having focus, being able to persevere, and being able to concentrate. But focus alone can result in undesirable consequences if not counterbalanced by empathy.

Focus alone will not result in the fulfillment of goals. Focus and empathy will.

At the outset empathy involves real curiosity and a desire to know or understand. There is a genuine interest in what the person is saying and feeling. You cannot have empathy without asking questions.

Here are some questions to ask if you want to work on developing empathy skills:

  1. “Can you say more about that?”
  2. “Really? That’s interesting. Can you be more specific?”
  3. “I wasn’t aware of that. Tell me more.”
  4. “I’m curious about that…let’s discuss this in more depth.”
  5. “Let me see if I understand you correctly…here is what I hear you say…”

What else can you suggest if you want to become more attuned to other people?

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