Believe it. Live it! Empathy: a core leadership attribute by Yasmin Elisabeth Hussain

My initial plan for this issue was to write a piece on leading millennials from a millennial’s perspective, but as I dug into my research I was drawn to another thread. A simple almost invisible one, weaving through the complex tapestry of leadership and managing people: empathy. 2015 saw an influx of online articles all focusing directly or indirectly on empathy. Titles included: ‘How great coaches ask, listen and empathise’, ‘Why companies are so bad at treating employees like people?’, ‘Empathy is the critical 21st century skill’, ‘Empathetic leaders please staff, investors and customers’, ‘What amazing bosses do differently’ and ‘Empathy is still lacking in the leaders who need it the most’.

In the past when you would talk about business and profits, empathy wasn’t a virtue associated with either. But now, internationally, it looks like empathy is finally being appreciated as a core leadership attribute. It is worth noting, adaptability, cultural competence, 360 degree thinking and intellectual curiosity were the other attributes identified in order to succeed in today’s digital and global economy. But executives from across the world, from Beijing to LA recognised empathy to be one of the most important leadership attributes.

At BMMI, times are certainly changing as well, and much has evolved since I joined the company in 2005. The past decade has albeit slowly met a shift in leadership style, which has positively affected our culture and working environment. As a diverse and complex organisation, there is no debating we need to be more agile and more human, but there is still insufficient attention given to the human factor.

After much thought I decided empathy was my ‘Believe it, Live it!’ calling. The emotional foundation, the holy grail of engagement, motivation and culture. But it’s not easy; to some it comes naturally while others need a lesson in humility.

What does it mean to be an empathetic leader? The Financial Times defines it as the ability to “understand, relate to and be sensitive to customers, colleagues and communities. Sociopathic leadership, on the other hand is arrogant, self-centered, insensitive and manipulative”.

For a bit of contrast and comparison, here’s a list Forbes pulled together of the top six danger signs of sociopathic individuals:

  • Fails to acknowledge responsibility and deflects blame onto others.
  • No real feelings or empathy.
  • Manipulate and bully for their own purposes.
  • They have no remorse.
  • They enjoy making people feel bad about themselves.
  • They purposely sabotage co-workers and employees.

It’s these same individuals who believe empathy is a representation of weakness.

Sadly, in my experience when you discuss empathy in the workplace, the common misconception is it’s too “touchy-feely”, “soft”, “feminine” and an add-on rather than a required leadership attribute.

There seems to be a cultural reluctance towards empathy, but this is not a whimsical way to lead, it is a challenging and required way to lead. When necessary (most of the time) you will need to step it up and take an empathetic stance. Use your imagination and see the world through someone else’s eyes.

So how can you strengthen your empathy skills when leading and managing teams?

Listen. When we listen (tune into emotional cues) and hear what is going through the minds of others, we develop a deeper human connection and a positive tension of allowing others to be heard and providing opportunity for guidance and support. It makes you feel valued, respected and appreciated.As a result, mutual understanding is achieved and better working environments are realised. It is our responsibility to create these work environments that help our teammates believe they are wanted and they belong, fulfilling a basic human need.

“Most people do not listen with the intent to understand; they listen with the intent to reply.” – Stephen R. Covey.

Understand individuals. It is important to recognise you are managing a team of individuals, with each individual possessing his or her unique wants, challenges, concerns and goals. Leverage diversity – recognise and celebrate differences. What makes each of them tick? The basic lesson here is you need to understand your team individually, no broad-brush interpretations.

“We should all know that diversity makes for a rich tapestry and we must understand that all the threads of the tapestry are equal in value no matter what their colour”. – Maya Angelou

Mutual feedback. Keep your door open; face time is essential! Encourage an open flow of communication to allow timely and continuous feedback so teams can grow and thrive. Feedback must always be given respectfully and received with humility.

Open, transparent communications plays a key role in cultivating relationships based on accountability and trust.

“The single biggest problem in communication is the illusion that it has taken place”. – George Bernard Shaw

Finally, lead by example. The best way to create an empathy ripple effect throughout the organisation is to practice it in front of others.

Over the last ten years, my role has evolved on average every three years which always kept things challenging and interesting, but I can honestly say my biggest and proudest achievement to date is creating a happy and satisfying work experience for our small team of five.

It’s not an exact science, but we have together somehow got the balance right and we support BMMI’s winning hearts culture. Culture drives performance and we drive culture. We are being the change we want to see in the BMMI world and I encourage you to follow us. It is hard work, but for me nothing is more satisfying than coming to work and spending time with my little work family, being liked and respected.

We do have a very unique office atmosphere. We have often been accused of laughing too much and playing around at work. But the reality is we have worked hard to develop deeper and more meaningful relationships with one another.

I do hope this inspires the way you lead your teams in 2016 and helps us galvanise efforts towards a more empathetic BMMI.

Best regards,
Yasmin Elisabeth Hussain
Brand, Communications & CSR Manager