What’s the No. 1 Leadership Skill, and Do You Have It?

If you could change one thing about your boss, what would it be? Someone who is more generous when it comes to giving bonuses? Or perhaps, a leader who is more understanding?

Consulting firm Gartner’s March 2022 survey of 230 human resources leaders revealed that 90% believed that to succeed in today’s work environment, leaders must focus on the human aspects of leadership. And yet, another Gartner survey of nearly 3,400 employees conducted in the same month found that just 29% reported that their leader was a “human” leader. 

The Gartner research identified three components that make up human leadership:

Authentic: Act with purpose and enable true self-expression, for both themselves and their teams.
Empathetic: Show genuine care, respect, and concern for employees’ well-being.
Adaptive: Enable flexibility and support that fits team members’ unique needs.

Meanwhile, PwC’s Hopes and Fears Survey 2021 (Malaysia) saw only 25% of employees reporting that their employers helped them manage stress and placed focus on their mental and emotional well-being, and just 22% of respondents said they were encouraged to take short breaks during the workday – indicative of a potential lack of empathy on the part of employers.

What employees value is clear, and supported by studies: research has found empathy to be the most important leadership skill of all.

What Does Empathy Actually Entail? 

If you can put yourself in someone else’s shoes, practise active listening, and pick up on how others are feeling, that means you have empathy. Empathy refers to the ability to understand other people’s emotions, perspectives, and experiences by genuinely and actively listening to them – even when in disagreement.

In the workplace, empathetic leaders are those who are able to demonstrate compassion and understanding towards their employees’ circumstances. It helps to better navigate remote working environments, build strong relationships with co-workers, and lower employee turnover.

According to research by Catalyst, empathy is a force for productivity, life-work integration, and positive work experiences. Empathetic leaders create healthy work spaces that prioritise employees’ well-being and growth, resulting in decreased burnout and increased employee retention. 

Do You Have Empathy?

Some might argue that empathy is not a leadership skill, but a personality trait. There are also those who say the ability to empathise is genetic, while others are of the opinion it is a result of environmental triggers.

Empathy may very well be both a skill and a trait, as well as both genetic and learned. 

A report by CNN Health explains that specific genes, such as those that trigger the “love hormone” oxytocin, are associated with empathy. It also states that environmental factors, such as culture, school, work, and the situation at home, can either increase or diminish our capacity to empathise with others. 

What Does an Empathetic Leader Do?

Empathetic people are known to be a curious bunch. For instance, when someone new joins the team, an empathetic leader may often ask them plenty of questions to be able to understand the newcomer better and relate to shared experiences. Relating to shared experiences lets the new team member gain a sense of belonging, and this can help the team cultivate a positive working environment. 

Empathetic individuals generally tend to maintain eye contact and rely on non-verbal cues to indicate that they are listening to you. This is more commonly referred to as active listening – a skill that can be learned and developed. When you practise active listening at the workplace, you listen to understand, allowing you to effectively communicate with your colleagues.  

A 2020 study found that respondents who had a supervisor with low emotionally intelligent behaviour (EIB) described their workplace with 70% negative descriptors, while respondents who had a supervisor with high EIB used 63.3% positive descriptors.  

This indicates that emotionally intelligent leaders, who likely have a high level of empathy, help create a healthy and comfortable work environment, which benefits not only employees, but the organisation in general. 

Impact of Empathy on the Workplace

Some may say empathy is a good-to-have skill rather than a must-have, but its importance must not be understated. Empathetic leaders have the ability to significantly impact a business’ bottom line and talent management.

With the increased implementation of work-from-home policies following the COVID-19 pandemic, it is crucial that supervisors and managers maintain a good relationship with their employees. Demonstrating empathy, such as by offering counselling for employees, allowing them to take short breaks, and sharing words of encouragement, can go a long way. Some positive outcomes of empathetic leadership are: 

1. Employees feel comfortable sharing input

Often, employees have great ideas but are too scared or shy to share them with managers. Empathetic leaders are able to create an environment that is open, safe, and inclusive, allowing employees to be more confident in sharing their ideas.

The willingness of a leader to listen to different perspectives can lead to the creation of innovative solutions that help boost an organisation’s performance. 

2. Employees are willing to stay

Employment Hero’s Wellness Report 2022 showed that more than half of the workforce surveyed experienced burnout. When employees constantly feel drained or mentally exhausted, they tend to “mentally quit” from their current job and start seeking employment opportunities elsewhere.

Under the leadership of an empathetic manager, however, employees are more likely to be working smarter, not harder, thus decreasing the risk of burnout. An empathetic leader listens to their team’s struggles and helps them come up with solutions for their issues at work. This contributes to improving employee retention.

3. Employees are more engaged in work

In Malaysia, only 54% of employees reported that they were truly engaged in their work – a far cry from India’s employee engagement rate of 79%, according to the Employee Experience Trends 2020 report. It also found an engagement score of 79% for employees who felt their company turned feedback into action really well. Here is where empathy comes into play. 

Empathetic leaders are able to actively listen to employee feedback, put themselves in their employees’ shoes, and come up with solutions and strategies that not only solve these problems, but also boost work productivity and quality.

Be the Empathetic Leader the Workforce Needs

Sunway University Online’s Master of Business Administration (MBA) equips students with both the hard and soft skills necessary for a people-first leader. With subjects like People and Organisations; Foresight Leadership and Management; and, Managing People, Analytics, and Change, our MBA students are primed to lead with knowledge, empathy, and confidence.

Schedule a call with our Education Counsellors to discover how you can be the best version of you – for your team, and more importantly, for yourself!