Empathy Lays the Foundation for Leading a Team

team with hands uplifting a heart
Angela Prestil, I-CUDE, CUDE, ADE, AADE Photo
Senior Consultant
CU Difference, FI Strategies

3 minutes

If leaders can’t empathize with others, the rest of their skills won’t matter.

At this moment, the most important soft skill for credit union leaders is empathy. According to Oracle, Workplace Intelligence, 70% of the global workforce says the past year has been the most stressful year of their lives. If leaders are unable to empathize with others, the rest of the skills they possess won’t matter. Empathy forms the foundation for communication, team building and all human connection.

Never has empathetic leadership been more tested. Typically, the focus of empathy is on member relationships, yet we have all needed to shift and balance employee needs with member needs to help our staff realize how much we appreciate them. One leader I spoke with says she has recently flexed her empathy muscles more than she ever dreamed would be needed. Not to say she wasn’t empathetic previously! Now she has been able to see firsthand the benefit of empathizing with staff as she sees her deepened connections providing a direct correlation with reducing staff turnover.

The simple act of making space for colleagues to share how they are struggling with new pressures of working, parenting and simply surviving is new to many. Providing a few minutes of relaxed camaraderie building at the beginning and end of meetings is critical to helping everyone feel like their life “off stage” is as important as their life “on stage” at work and beyond.

An empathetic leader meets their team where they are and works to both listen to the emotion being expressed and to acknowledge that emotion, so the team member feels truly heard. An empathetic leader holds space for dialogue that may feel off topic as team members share any struggles—and joys!—they’ve experienced. Where previously leaders may have led meetings with a strict “stick to the schedule” mantra, they’ve now come to realize that human connection is as important to getting the work done as the actual work itself. Lastly, an empathetic leader realizes that there is always room and time for empathy to live in their culture. They encourage it among their peer group and model it with their direct reports, which creates a cascading effect throughout the organization.

Empathy is the key to relationship success—whether with your staff, your board or your family.

According to M&C Saatchi, the empathy gap in the U.S. between what businesses promise and what they actually deliver costs companies between $460 million and $860 million every year. And 74% of consumers say they would stop using a company if it no longer delivered what it promised. This measures lost revenue from consumers switching providers, but doesn’t factor in the cost of turnover when we aren’t delivering on our promise to our employees.

The good news is that empathy is a muscle that can be strengthened over time by practicing the kinds of actions described in this blog—listening, holding space for emotions and being OK with being “off track” at times. Fortunately, empathy is a skill that we can practice with every human interaction—from the office to home to the gas station!

Leaders act as role models, so the benefits of leaders demonstrating empathy are particularly far-reaching. Your staff is watching you. Why not investigate where you might be able to bench press a few more pounds with empathy?

Angela Prestil is senior consultant with CU Difference and FI Strategies.

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