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The power of empathy in leadership

Heather BunneyCommercial Director & Lead Leadership Consultant at Cegos Swiss

In a recent Cegos “Global L&D Talk”, we looked at the theme of empathetic leadership. Why is empathy so crucial for managers and leaders today? How do we develop empathetic leaders at all levels and across all sectors.

Three keynote speakers from diverse backgrounds – including healthcare, mining, and industrial services – shared perspectives and experiences on the issue. Here, we present key insights from their presentations and offer some ideas to foster empathy among your own leaders.

Lead from the heart

Leading with the ‘head, heart and hands’ was the theme of a talk given by Dr. Timothy Low, healthcare CEO and author of “Triangulation of Success”. With decades of experience in the healthcare sector, and having managed two private hospitals, he knows that empathy is a key factor in leadership success.

“There has been a major shift in working practices since the pandemic,” says Dr. Low. “Most people are just looking out for themselves. Companies serve their own internal agenda and ignore important stakeholders, from customers to employees. A crisis can either lead to breakdown or breakthrough.”

The solution, he suggests, is to focus on service excellence, ensuring it is consistent with the company’s mission and core values. This creates loyalty from customers and aids employee engagement.

Importantly, a good service culture should be deeply pervasive at all levels, from General Manager through the organisation. Leaders should build trust, accentuate the positive, redirect negative behaviour, catch people doing things right as well as wrong. They should also embrace a caring and sharing culture.

Build a culture of success

“Empathy is the foundation for motivation, trust and cooperation,” says Josephine Henrici, Global Head of HR at Rieckermann, a company that provides customised industrial solutions. “We have to ask: what are the behaviours that make us successful?”

Josephine helped deliver Rieckermann’s ‘Culture of Success’ initiative. The program aims to cultivate a sense of empathy among managers throughout the organisation by instilling positive behaviours.

Key behaviours are based around innovation, continuous learning and cooperation. The team developed simple guiding principles for behaviour to help through the daily challenges.

For example, staff are encouraged to approach mistakes as a learning opportunity. Once aware of the mistake, they are expected to accept and own it.

Another principle is to embrace ‘diversity’, which can be defined in terms of different departments, roles and educations levels, as well as the more traditional elements such as gender and ethnicity.

Other principles revolve around communication skills and growth mindset.

In terms of implementation, Josephine’s team conducted activities around the guiding principles, ensuring they could be realistically applied to daily life at company. Leadership workshops helped instil guiding principle across teams.

“Don’t expect behaviour change overnight, it’s a journey,” says Josephine.
“It’s important to have a shared language. Feedback – good and bad – is very helpful. We need to constantly engage with our managers to make sure they are engaging their teams and following the right behaviours themselves”.

Safety first

Imerys is a French multinational that specialises in the production and processing of industrial minerals.

“Empathetic leadership is mandatory if you want to improve safety, which is obviously a priority for a mining company”, says Anne-Claire Béquet, Training Program Manager at Imerys, who helped deliver the company’s ‘Lead My Team’ initiative.

For many people who work in a plant, the tough and stressful environment means that empathy does not really go with the territory. And most supervisors are not trained to be empathetic leaders.

That is why it is important for them to understand what leadership is and aim for continuous improvement. In an industrial environment, human beings are the most valuable asset, so team leaders need to work on their role to improve communication and learn how to manage continuous improvement in a positive way.

“Everyone in the plant needs to be trained,” says Anne-Claire, “but in different ways. There is an assessment before and after the workshops to help embed the learning.”
The training has had tangible results in the real world, reflected in a significantly improved safety record.

To summarise this theme of empathetic leadership we could say that it’s not about talking, it’s about listening to your team – recognising people as individuals. Leaders need to show empathy at every stage of their leadership journey. Forming a vision, involving people in it, then telling them what they need to do and empowering them to do it at all levels. By doing this, they foster a culture of trust that encourages innovation and leads to success.

If you would like to know more about how to develop empathetic leaders within your organisation, contact us today.

Written by

Heather Bunney

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