By Anaïs Merlin, Senior Account Director & Deputy Head of Mobile and Telecoms, CCgroup
My perception of what it means to be a leader has definitely changed in the last few years. If you’d asked me three or so years ago, I’d have said it was about providing direction, guidance, and being clear about what you and your teams are doing—all about the work, and little focus on the people. But today, my answer looks slightly different. Now, I believe being a leader is about finding empathy in the most trying of situations—the people are on par with the work. Of course, providing direction and guidance are still paramount to a leadership role, but there’s little value in doing so if it’s coming from a place of uncertainty, of doubt, or worse still, of fear.
While organisations are thinking carefully about their impact on their employees’ mental health and livelihoods, being an empathetic leader is still what I would call an emerging trait. For some, finding the balance between empathy and leadership is proving tough—how can I successfully direct, lead and oversee if I’m concerned about team dynamics, relationships, feelings and emotions? But when done right, it can unleash a world of benefits. Empathetic leadership can have a direct impact on retention rates, productivity, efficiency and unsurprisingly, on overall employee satisfaction. Where things get more interesting, however, is when you look at the impact of empathy on diverse employees.
Much like other aspects of leadership, we can’t think about empathy one-dimensionally. Every individual will have different requirements when it comes to what they need from an empathetic leader. These requirements will be dictated by nature and nurture—our traits and what makes us “us”, as well as our environment, our likes and dislikes. This is where we see empathy enter the realm of intersectionality.
A 2021 report by Catalyst found that women of colour are the least likely to feel respected and valued in the workplace, but where low or high senior leader empathy is present, that sentiment of being respected and valued coincidentally increases. In a similar vein, empathy drives inclusion. While inclusion is a word that gets thrown around a lot (sometimes without real meaning behind it), in this context, I’m talking about belonging. In the PR world, creating a sense of belonging is something we’re familiar with—it’s something brands often aspire to do. And being a successful empathetic leader will see you take your teams on a journey, making each individual feel as though their individual life experiences matter in the context of their work lives. The same report also states that high empathy sees feelings of inclusion in the workplace go up by 20% for men and 31% for women.
Empathetic leadership is all about flexing those soft skills—skills that in the past, I’ve not been great at, because I was focused on getting the work done and not so much on what was happening around me. But as I have become more senior, I’ve realised the importance of my teams, about their individual and unique experiences and how these impact—for better or worse—their work lives. Over the years I’ve also worked with “leaders” who haven’t shown empathy, and as a result have created negative work environments. While they’re not people I want to emulate, they’ve certainly proven to be great case studies for what not to do.
But ultimately, it’s important to remember that although we all strive to bring our best self to work, we are just humans—with many qualities, but many flaws too. Being aware of your own, and understanding of others’ is what makes a true empathetic leader. Am I there? Probably not, there’s still some learning to do—and there always will be—but it’s all about baby steps, and The Xec. is a great place to start.