empathetic leader

Are You An Empathetic Leader?

By Tasha Broomhall

Over the last few years, I have often been shocked and distressed by the type of leadership we value in our politicians, our workplaces and our families. There has been much rhetoric about being a strong leader, being more forthright in the political arena, quietness is too often dismissed as being weak or soft.

I see it also in organisational leadership, where in one example a strong compassionate relationship-based leader, who supports and encourages her team to know themselves, to work from their strengths and to work collaboratively with others, was derided by her manager for not being loud and pushy enough. Even though her team value her approach, achieve their outcome targets and are all well respected professionals who others in the organisation trust.

I’ve seen it in a community sporting club where the new President was elected (no one else had put their hand up for the role) but was met with much scepticism for months that his gentle collaborative leadership style will ‘get trampled all over’. Only for him to sort out the factional issues that had long plagued the club and lead the club to stability and victory on and off the field.

The leadership styles of politicians are often criticised. Former Prime Minister Morrison has often been the target of criticism for his reliance on the counsel of his wife, Jenny, to help him empathise with the experience of women, that when questioned by a parent who wanted answers about funding for her disabled child he responded with comments about his own experiences as a parent ‘blessed’ with healthy children, and as a leader who by his own characterisation was ‘a bit of a bulldozer’. The criticism is that he should not have to have lived experience himself of a particular issue to be able to empathise with those experiencing it.

Inter-Group Empathy

However, Mr Morrison is not unique in empathising more with people with whom he identifies closely. Many of us experience a proximity bias. We feel more for those we perceive as closer to us. This is called inter-group empathy, where we experience more empathy for people who sit within the same groups as us, compared to those who sit in groups outside of ours.

We can see this in many examples; the empathy we feel, the amount of news we consume and the direct actions of support we take when a natural disaster happens in our country, or in a country where people look, sound and live in a way similar to us as individuals.

Compared To…

Compare this to our attention and actions when events occur in parts of the world and to people we’re not as familiar with. Even within our own country, the way we follow stories about people from our own cultural and socio-economic backgrounds, versus people who live very differently to us demonstrates this proximity bias.

If someone is like us then we have more empathy, pay more attention and push for action. This is an example of us othering. Rather than seeing our commonality with someone as a human, we have focused on the categories that differentiate us. We’ve separated from their humanness and see them as an ‘other’ instead.

Leading A Diverse Community

The problem with this is that any leader, especially a Prime Minister, needs to be able to lead a diverse community, many of whom they may not have a direct line of comparison with. They need to be able to have empathy with experiences very unlike their own if they have any hope of representing us fairly and adequately. For too long this has not been considered important.

According to ABS data (2016 Census) almost 3% of Australians are Aboriginal or Torres Strait Islander, a third of Australians are born overseas, we live in a community of Australians that is diverse culturally, in languages spoken, in disability, neurodiversity, sexuality, gender identity and religion.

In his victory speech Mr Albanese said ‘I want Australia to continue to be a country that no matter where you live, who you worship, who you love or what your last name is, that places no restrictions on your journey in life.’ The newly sworn in Prime Minister has promised to lead ‘a government as courageous and hardworking and caring as the Australian people are themselves.’

Mr Albanese’s comments since declaring victory in the election are strongly focussed on understanding and connecting with the experience of others. He has promised he will lead with the mandate that ‘No one left behind because we should always look after the disadvantaged and the vulnerable. But also no one held back, because we should always support aspiration and opportunity.’

He has promised diversity, order and collaboration in his parliament. He has promised to action the Uluru Statement from the Heart, to act on climate change and to bring production back into this country through innovation and building future industries. Old style leadership models of command and control are not adequate, and likely damaging. If the new PM follows through on these promises, it will be transformative for this country. This is the type of compassionate empathy that future focussed organisations need.

There are different types of empathy and compassionate empathy is empathy in action. This requires what former Australian of the Year Miriam-Rose Ungunmerr-Baumann says is called ‘dadirri’ – or deep listening.

Listening And Reflecting

Listening, reflecting, understanding, and connecting across different perspectives is critical to transformational leadership. Your experience can create a point of reference for you but be careful not to confuse your experience with another’s. Your experience will not be universal and shouldn’t be imposed on others.

Understanding someone else’s experience takes listening and reflecting, but listening is most important. Sometimes listening to someone’s experience can feel distressing, especially if the person has experienced trauma, discrimination or marginalisation. Especially if that person is speaking truths and revealing issues which have been shrouded in silence. It’s a skill to learn to listen and hold that space for their distress and not try to bulldoze over it.

What Is Empathy And Compassion?

Empathy is about taking someone else’s perspective and seeing the world through another person’s eyes, without judgement, without trying to change them or to solve their problems, or to save them (especially if this is done to remove your own discomfort). Compassionate empathy then creates actions with the people you have been listening to, to create a next that is grounded in understanding. The good news is that both listening and compassionate empathy are skills that can be learned.

Are You A Compassionate And Empathetic Leader?

If you wish to learn more about different types of empathy and build your skills in this critical area, for all people, and especially for leaders, have a look at our eLearning courses.

Tap into our mental health expertise

See how our team can make building and sustaining a proactive psychological health and safety culture easy, enjoyable and cost-effective.

Contact Us

Image Credit: Jehyun Sung (Unsplash)

Share this article
View Category: For Leaders
Shopping Cart
Scroll to Top