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Why empathy is the key to effective leadership in business


If everyone was the same, we’d live in a very boring world. The beauty of humanity is in our differences.

It just so happens that these differences can be very good for business: diverse companies generate 2.5x more cash per employee, and diverse teams make better decisions 87% of the time.

But a diverse team doesn’t guarantee success. The best leaders work to understand the differences within their team, to play to strengths, cover weaknesses, and help their group become something greater than the sum of its parts.

And they do it through empathy.

We’re all human

I’m the owner of Ninki, a female-driven content marketing agency. I’m a naturally empathetic person, something that has been a huge help – and at times a hindrance – through my business journey.

Pre-Ninki I’d been lucky enough to work across the globe, honing my marketing craft at the likes of the BBC, The Economist and NewsCorp. These experiences exposed me to the full spectrum of management styles, many of which have informed my own.

The most important takeaway from my corporate experiences, and something that I’ve kept front-of-mind since opening my own business, is perfectly simple and obvious, yet surprisingly rare:

Treat people as people.

A lot of leaders treat their staff like workhorses. They direct, they instruct, they avoid getting too close. And it’s usually to the detriment of the worker, the team and the company at large.

Lacking an understanding of their team members, these leaders are defined by bad resource management, unrealistic expectations and high staff churn.

True leaders empathise

The best leaders recognise their team for what it is: a collection of individuals, each with distinctly human needs, desires, fears and frustrations.

To get the best out of your team you must slip into their shoes. This shift in perspective helps you better understand their strengths and weaknesses, their challenges and motivations, and how to get the most out of them.

Leading with empathy allows people to be open and vulnerable, which facilitates a sense of connectedness and trust. It helps to reveal hidden truths within your operation: issues and opportunities that people may not otherwise be comfortable highlighting.

Empathy is the secret sauce that can get your workers and business humming. When people feel heard and valued, they work better and stick around longer.

How I lead with empathy

At Ninki empathy and understanding are built into our processes.

During onboarding I work to understand a new team member’s interests, goals and learning styles, and I get them to complete the Jim Kwik personality test, which helps me to identify their natural strengths and weaknesses.

Our weekly team meetings are as much about the workers as the work; I check in with everyone to get a sense of where their heads are at and if there’s any support or assistance I can offer.

I work side-by-side with my team, which lets me see what they face day-to-day and how they work together. Bigger businesses can do this too: Laxman Narasimhan, the Starbucks CEO, works as a barista for half a day every month.

Obviously leaders need to balance empathy with authority. Your team still needs to be clear on expectations, and they should be challenged to extend their skill sets and work beyond their comfort zones.

But even in situations when a leader needs to crack the whip, it should always be done through a lens of empathy and understanding.

The beauty of your team, and of humanity itself, is in our differences. And by leading with empathy, you create a happy workplace that converts those beautiful differences into business success.

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