How many people do you interact with at work during a typical week or month?
Most leaders I know don't count the relationships involved in their work. However, if they wrote a list of the people with whom they regularly interact, many would be able to go beyond a simple list and could tell you something about each person. Some information may be work-related (such as how each team member prefers to receive feedback), and other notes would be broader (such as which sports teams matter to the support staff and that a key vendor has a new grandchild).
Fundamentally, leadership involves relationships. Whether you're the leader of a small team, the manager of a large retail store, or the CEO of a global corporation, you conduct work through your relationships with others. To be effective in those relationships, leaders must understand the perspectives of the people with whom they are working. What leaders need is Empathy, one of the twelve Emotional and Social Intelligence Leadership Competencies.
Empathy means having the ability to sense others' feelings and how they see things. You take an active interest in their concerns. You pick up cues to what's being felt and thought. With empathy, you sense unspoken emotions. You listen attentively to understand the other person's point of view, the terms in which they think about what's going on.
Neuroscientists have identified the different sections of the brain involved with two distinct types of empathy: cognitive empathy and emotional empathy. With cognitive empathy, we can understand the perspective of another person and the forces that informed that perspective. With emotional empathy, we pick up on the feelings of another person through verbal and nonverbal cues, and experience what they are feeling.
Does being skilled at empathy contribute to a leader's performance?
That's a question researchers at the Center for Creative Leadership set out to answer when they looked at a sample of over 6,700 leaders from 38 countries. Here's what they found: "Our results reveal that empathy is positively related to job performance. Managers who show more empathy toward direct reports are viewed as better performers in their job by their bosses. The findings were consistent across the sample: empathic emotion as rated from the leader's subordinates positively predicts job performance ratings from the leader's boss."
As I mentioned, the experiences of cognitive and emotional empathy reside in specific parts of our brains. Given that neuroscientists have shown us that our brains can change, how can we enhance the parts of our brain related to empathy? The keys to making changes in our brain are repeated experiences and practice. Two of the "six habits of highly empathic people" from the Greater Good Science Center at the University of California, Berkeley include curiosity and deep listening.
When we're curious, we engage with others, even strangers, to learn more about their perspective. Standing in line at the grocery store, instead of reading messages on your phone, why not smile and ask the person next to you how they're going to prepare the vegetables in their cart? Or when you're early for a meeting, ask the other person waiting about something new they've learned this week in their job.
Then, once you've asked the question, stop and really pay attention to their answer. Listen both for the words being said and the feeling behind them. Does the person seem excited about a new recipe for broccoli they're eager to try? Or harried and indifferent about what they'll prepare for dinner? Does the person waiting for the meeting sound proud of their new learning? Or anxious about the implications of what they learned? Respond accordingly, with a sign that you understand, or offer a helpful comment.
One conversation won't boost your empathy, but over time, exercising your curiosity and listening closely to others will help you sense more accurately how others think and feel.
Daniel Goleman is the author of The Brain and Emotional Intelligence: New Insights