Tag: Empathy

Empathic leadership – Understanding the biology of empathy

Empathic leadership

My mother, an MSW and retired therapist, has an uncanny ability to recognize ones emotional intelligence. I recall when I was younger her saying things like “that person is all left brain” or “that person is all right brain”. At the time I didn’t understand the details of how the brain worked, but I had a general idea of what she was saying. She was saying that there were two types of minds, one is rational and one is emotional.

Do you know someone who is highly intelligent, yet shows a lack of emotional connection and empathy? Or do you know someone who can’t grasp basic algebra, yet has a strong ability to connect with others? The reason for this relates to the human brain and the biology of empathy. Thanks to science, we now understand that emotional and rational minds are semi-independent and interconnected facilities within the brain.

Below is a description of the three central areas of the human brain that are at work when we are using empathy. They are the neocortex, the visual cortex, and the amygdala:

  • The neocortex – The neocortex is the part of our brain that handles our thinking and logic. In humans, the neocortex is the biggest part of the cerebral cortex.  The human neocortex is  bigger than any other species and the evolution of the neocortex has given us the ability to survive. The neocortex enables us to have thoughts and feelings. It serves as the center for higher functions of the brain that enable vision, hearing, touch, and all other cognition.
  • The visual cortex – The visual cortex is part of the cerebral cortex and it handles processing visual information. When we see something happening, the visual cortex starts processing information about what we are seeing. It then sends signals to other areas of the brain to process and respond. If the visual cortex processes information you see as emotional, it send signals to the amygdala, which handles the emotional centers of the brain.
  • The amygdala – The amygdala is what gives us the ability to have feelings and emotions. There are two amygdala in the human brain, one on each side. They are shaped like almonds and they sit just above the brainstem. The amygdala is interconnected with the neocortex and the two work together. They allow us to have feelings and make decisions. Daniel Goleman, expert on emotional intelligence, writes: “If the amygdala is severed from the rest of the brain, the result is a striking inability to gauge the emotional significance of events; this condition is sometimes called “affective blindness” (Goleman, 1995).

We know that the circuitry between the neocortex, visual cortex, and the  amygdala are hard at work when we are having an emotional response. If we felt physically threatened, the amygdala is telling us have an either flight or flight response. While the amygdala is telling us to fight or flight, the neocortex allow us to think about the decision before taking any action.

When we think through consequences before acting, like going to jail if we were to attack someone, we have the neocortex to thank.

To understand what life would be like without empathy, we need to look no further than our prisons. Our prisons are filled with violent criminals who have the inability to feel their victim’s pain. Rapists, molesters and murders have a common trait, most of them are incapable of empathy.

Prison systems now use programs to try to instill empathy. They do this by forcing the inmates to feel and understand the pain of their victims. The most extreme violent criminal is the sociopath. Sociopath’s are completely incapable of feeling empathy or compassion. They are untreatable.

It is now common knowledge that emotional intelligence is important for leadership and success. Most of the successful people I know didn’t have through the roof IQs. Instead, they had a strong ability to connect with others. The good news is that we can improve our emotional intelligence. The key to improvement is self commitment, and feedback from others. For more on EQ development, see Daniel Goleman’s post here.

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References: Goleman, D. (2005) Emotional Intelligence, 1995,  New York, NY, Bantam Books

5 proven ways to improve your leadership using empathy

What is empathy?

At some point you have probably worked for someone who lacked empathy. I will never forget a manager I once had. He was like a robot, with no ability to connect on an emotional level. I was baffled that he was in charge of managing people. Yet, people like him get put into “leadership” positions all the time. So, what is empathy and why is it so important for leadership? Merriam Webster defines empathy as “the feeling that you understand and share another person’s experiences and emotions: the ability to share someone else’s feelings” (Webster).

The word empathy derives from the Greek word empatheia, “feeling into”. Empathy is the ability to sense the emotions of those around us. People who have strong empathy can feel the feelings of others as if they were their own. Empathy is different from sympathy, which is feeling self-pity or sorry for others. With empathy, we may not even agree with others, but we can understand and sense how they feel.

Empathy is one of the components that make up emotional intelligence (EI). The other components that make up EI are self-awareness, self-regulation, motivation and social skills. Today, leaders need to have both strong IQ and EI. There has been much research done on the value of EI in leadership. The research indicates that the greatest leaders have a high level of emotional intelligence.

The purpose of this post is to drill deeper into the importance of empathy in leadership.  Empathy may be the greatest pillar of emotional intelligence.  Throughout my career, I have found that a lack of empathy is common problem among management. This is particularly true in the technology industry.

In IT, we think of managers as people who think in a linear way of facts, all about computation and logic. In business, we think of managers as people who should have the ability to connect with others.

I contest that we can no longer afford to separate these two groups of people. Why not hire and promote people who are both smart and good with people, regardless of industry? Why not teach leadership, regardless of one’s position title?  Why not teach the importance of empathy?

Empathy in general gets a bad rap in the business world. In business, we think we need to be tough. Only the strong survive. Don’t let emotions get in the way.  There’s no time to be empathetic to customers or employees. This is a great misunderstanding. Empathizing with employees and customers has a direct positive effect on the bottom line.

Why is empathy important for leadership?

Being a leader requires interpersonal relations. I don’t care if you are CEO, if you don’t connect with others, you are not a leader. Steven Covey, author of the 7 habits of highly effective people, writes: “If I were to summarize in one sentence the single most important principle I have learned in the field of interpersonal relations, it would be this: Seek first to understand, then to be understood. This principle is the key to effective interpersonal communication” (Covey, 1989).

To understand another, we must have empathy. The best leaders are not self-absorbed, they take interest in others.  Daniel Goleman  is an expert and author on emotional intelligence. Goleman identified three reasons why empathy is important for leadership. They are: the increasing use of teams, the rapid pace of globalization, and the growing need to keep talent (Goleman, 1996).

With the increasing use of team’s, leaders need to have a sense of everyone’s viewpoints. With globalization, empathy provides leaders the capability to better connect in cross-cultural dialogues. This happens through subtleties in body language and feeling. Lastly, empathy plays a key role in the retention of talent. Empathetic leaders will do what they can to develop employees and keep them happy.

Most individuals that lack empathy believe if they focus only on themselves, they will get ahead. In reality, the opposite happens. People who only care about their own career will only go so far, but those who enable others to grow and flourish will rise to new heights. This goes back to the sound moral principle; if we give we will receive.

Here are 5 ways to improve your leadership using empathy

Practice humility – Humility is the ultimate display of leadership. It’s what separates the men from the boys. What our ego wants us to believe may be completely different than reality. To lead with empathy, you need to understand that you don’t have all the answers. You need to appreciate that someone much lower down on the org chart than you, may know much more than you. In fact, they may provide more value to the organization than you. With this in mind, treat everyone, regardless of their title, with the same amount of respect.

Focus on listening – Attune yourself to the person who is communicating with you. Observe their body language and facial expressions, as well as hear the words they speak. Before you state your view point, make sure you understand the other person. For more on listening with empathy, see my blog post here.

Express that you care – Expressing that you care can be effective, but be careful, you can’t fake it. I often manage projects that need software testing. I always make a point to the testers that I care about how they are treated. Since I worked as a software tester, I know how difficult it is. I do what I can to let the team know I care, and I am genuine. 

Understand that you don’t always understand – Accept that you don’t always understand situations. This gets back to practicing humility. If someone starts missing work, don’t jump to the conclusion that they are slacking. Give people the benefit of the doubt. That person may have a good reason for needing to take personal days. Kanye West provided a great example of what can go wrong when we jump to conclusions. During one of his concerts he told everyone to stand up. When one person didn’t stand up, he got frustrated and pointed out the person who wouldn’t stand up. He then discovered the person didn’t stand because they were in a wheelchair. Don’t jump to conclusions!  

 Put yourself in their shoes – Try to put yourself in the other person’s shoes. Another way to say this is, try to relate and not compare. If someone tells you they are struggling with an issue, try to relate. Think about how you too have struggled with a similar issue. Before jumping right into what you think they should do, talk about how you relate. Maybe you faced the same problem once, and it made you stressed. As Managers, we think we need to have immediate answers. Refrain from diving right into solutions. Instead, take a minute to relate and connect. By taking the time to show empathy, it provides relief to the individual who came to you with an issue. After making that connection, then you can get into what to do next. By connecting first, the solution and next steps will be much more effective.

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