Leaders are expected to organise a diverse group of people and inspire them to complete common goals, while also managing their own emotions and creating an environment conducive to creativity and innovation. These expectations can easily become overwhelming, but leaders who rely on empathy will improve morale and job performance.
Leaders who are strict taskmasters undoubtedly accomplish tasks on a checklist--but where does this leave employees and growth within the organisation? Leaders with poor interpersonal skills are not going to inspire others to innovate and offer new solutions to problems. Instead, turnover, stress, and burnout will likely all be high, and from a purely cost standpoint, this is a bad situation.
More importantly, it’s also a terrible situation from a personnel perspective. Leaders who lack understanding, compassion and empathy are not going to draw in and retain top talent. Even in cases where a person isn’t quite on the right track, leaders who celebrate positive attributes while offering constructive, helpful criticism of negative traits will help the person and their organisation succeed.
EMPATHY, THE BRAIN AND THE WORKPLACE
Neuroscience has taken great strides in brain imaging and mapping how the brain functions. A research study was conducted to determine if functional magnetic resonance imaging (fMRI) could detect changes when participants either viewed or imitated facial expressions.
Scientists found that brain activity was significantly increased in the amygdala when participants mirrored the expressions. The amygdala is part of the limbic system and is involved in processing different emotional responses. Other parts of the brain, including the anterior insula (responsible for emotional experiences) and the inferior frontal cortex (responsible for higher-level functions such as decision-making and inhibition), also showed increased activity.1
Researchers will continue to unravel new mechanisms pertaining to empathy and how it affects our brains, but studies like this indicate that when we mimic those around us, we increase empathy and can better understand and relate to how they are feeling.
Leadership is about empathy. It is about having the ability to relate to and connect with people for the purpose of inspiring and empowering their lives.
BRINGING EMPATHY INTO YOUR ORGANISATION
To achieve a calm and compassionate state, the mind has to be in the right mindset. Cultivating positive thoughts and emotions will help create a more productive and innovative work environment, from the top down and from the bottom up.2
To increase empathy (or bring it back) into your business endeavours, consider these thoughts.
- Take a good look at yourself and your practices. Unconscious prejudices and biases aren’t usually obvious to the person who has them. But, this isn’t an excuse for poor behaviour. Self-reflection is the first step to changing your leadership style for the better.
- Examine the values of the organisation. Are you expecting employees to act and behave according to company values, but you trample parts of the vision or mission? When empathy is not included in this vision, or if leaders don’t adhere to the practices they expect others to have, growth and innovation will grind to a halt as talent flees for better working environments.
- Life is diverse, and so are the people you work with. Everyone sees the world differently, and our perceptions can evolve as our attitudes, education, and experiences change. Leaders who act imperiously, and expect others to do exactly as they wish do not value diversity or understand that being unique is part of what makes us great.
EMPATHY SHOULD BE AN INTEGRAL PART OF ANY BUSINESS
Empathy is a crucial part of any leadership toolbag, and we can use neuroscience to teach our brains to better connect with people around us, personally and professionally. Leaders who value diversity and self-reflection will create the conditions needed to allow employees to thrive. We must all learn that there are consequences for our actions, and even the top echelons of leadership should be reminded of the importance of empathy in the workplace.
1. Carr L, Iacoboni M, Dubeau MC, Mazziotta JC, Lenzi GL. Neural mechanisms of empathy in humans: A relay from neural systems for imitation to limbic areas. PNAS. 2003;100(9). doi: 10.1073/pnas.0935845100
2. Damiano, S. Wellbeing Strategies for Optimal Brain & Body Performance. About my Brain Institute. 2018;1. [eBook].