How to Use Empathy to Unlock High Employee Performance

As a leader, one of your most critical roles is to inspire and motivate your team to deliver their best daily work. However, this isn't something that can be achieved through dictates and micromanagement. Actual high performance stems from creating an environment where employees feel genuinely valued, invested in the company's vision, and driven by their motivation.

But that's far easier said than done. 

We've recently discussed building and communicating your vision as a leader, approaching your strategy pragmatically, and understanding how your value stream should drive organisational development. Those are core qualities that any growth leader should develop. 

But there's another equally important one, but possibly the most difficult to develop: Empathetic Leadership. 

Too often, inexperienced leaders believe they must be hard, uncaring, and act like a strict disciplinarian with their employees. But the truth is that embodying empathy is a far more effective approach. Empathetic leaders forge authentic connections by being people-first while aligning direct reports' values with organisational goals. Compassionate leadership is critical to developing a supportive structure where people can thrive. 

If you can instil your leadership with empathy, you'll create what every leader wants: a well-oiled, high-performing team. Let's take a closer look at the building blocks of empathy and the steps you can take to infuse your leadership with it. 


What Is Empathy? 

Empathy is a critical leadership skill in fostering positive work environments, enhancing collaboration, and improving employee satisfaction and engagement. At its core, empathy is a measure of one's emotional intelligence. It enables you to understand other people's emotions and needs. By understanding your employees' experiences, you can make more informed decisions and create a supportive environment where employees feel cared for and engaged. Furthermore, demonstrating empathy creates a positive, inclusive work environment, self-managed employees that perform at high levels, better teamwork and collaboration, and reduced burnout and turnover. 

We often think of empathy as a soft skill, but it can be a powerful tool for effective leadership. 


Build Trusting Relationships

The critical first step is establishing a genuine relationship with each team member. This goes far beyond superficial team-building exercises and is easier to do during 1-on-1 interactions. 

As a leader, you must make a concerted effort to deeply understand each individual, their motivations, aspirations, and personal definitions of meaningful work. Most importantly, you need to learn what each employee individually values, as this can be used to motivate them. 

Approach every interaction with a mindset of genuine curiosity and care, prioritising listening over telling. Show vulnerability by sharing your hopes and apprehensions. Make it clear that you have no ulterior motives and that your sole priority is creating an environment where they can flourish.

Your people will develop trust when they feel genuinely heard, safe to be vulnerable, and confident that your intentions are authentic. Most importantly, they should be made to feel valued and that their opinions and experiences matter. This will enable you to help them see alignment between the company's values and their own. This will help them buy into your vision and invest deeply in the company's success. 


Blaze a Clear Path to Impact

Once you establish solid relationships with your employees, the next enabler of high performance is ensuring they clearly understand the connection between their day-to-day tasks and efforts and the organisation's most critical objectives. To achieve this, you must demonstrate to them the impact their contributions have on achieving company objectives. 

Collaboratively set individual objectives that directly ladder up to broader goals. In recurring 1-on-1 meetings, have employees look back at their achievements over the previous two weeks and discuss their impact on the bigger picture. This is your opportunity to discuss their recent performance, discuss obstacles stopping them from achieving their objectives, and celebrate their wins. Combine that with a "feed-forward" that looks at their plan for the coming period and suggestions on improving performance while explicitly linking their tasks and the overarching vision.

Additionally, some of your 1-on-1 sessions should incorporate dedicated coaching conversations focused on expanding employees' skill sets through personalised development plans. Remember, these sessions are more about growth than performance, which should be your focus. By continuously investing in their growth, you demonstrate a vested interest in their long-term success while being able to hone and direct their talents towards organisational goals.


Take a Situational Approach

The business world is rarely black and white, and navigating the peaks and valleys of organisational life requires an agile, adaptable approach. That's where the principles of situational leadership become invaluable.

That is, you need to meet employees where they are. For employees who are inexperienced or struggling, you will want to adopt a more nurturing, directive stance where you provide ample support and structured tasks and accountabilities. Conversely, seasoned high-performers seldom require hand-holding, and you can focus your coaching on the broader objectives while allowing them to operate in a more self-directed manner.

It's important to note that there will inevitably be phases of intense productivity and periods of crisis. And it's in these times when demonstrating empathy is the most important thing you can do. An empathetic leader understands these situational undercurrents that impact performance and responds by flexibly adjusting their style and prioritising whatever employees need most in that particular context.

The Payoff: A Well-Oiled, Naturally Motivated Machine

Implementing an empathetic leadership approach is no small undertaking. It requires extreme self-awareness, diligence in maintaining structured 1-on-1s, and a continual desire to hone your ability to understand and motivate others.

It might be hard work, but the payoff makes it worthwhile. You can better align their values with organisational priorities by taking a genuine interest in employees as complete human beings—not just workers. Over time, you'll find it easier to adjust your approach to their situational needs, and you can create a productive environment for self-driven motivation to flourish.

Of course, having an engaged and motivated workforce is integral and certainly engenders a happier workplace. But what are the tangible benefits of the empathetic leadership approach? In my experience, managers who adopt a more empathetic style can achieve sustainable performance gains of as much as 20 per cent.

Over time, you'll find that leadership based on authentic empathy, trust, and understanding is the foundation for unlocking your people's potential and operational excellence. But don't forget to be empathetic to yourself as well! Spend some time reflecting on your performance as an empathetic leader and see every interaction as a learning opportunity for yourself.


Are you interested in becoming a more empathetic leader? Let us help you on your journey. Schedule a coaching call or sign up for our Growth Leadership Program today!

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