Empathy: Is It Leadership’s X Factor?

Years ago, I had joined an organisation as a middle level executive, a few weeks prior to the festival of Diwali. As is a practice with most organisations in India, this company too provided employees with gifts before the festive season. In this case, it was gift vouchers which were given. The organisation being focused on uniformity, gift vouchers of an equal value were handed out to all employees across levels.

Due to my coming on board close to the festival dates, the concerned team managing this initiative, did not factor me in. Hence, I was not a listed beneficiary of the voucher. Couple of days prior to Diwali, the vouchers were distributed to one and all in office. I did not receive it. I was not surprised nor concerned. Just carried on with work as usual.

The next day evening, as we were going to break for the festival holidays, my boss suddenly called me to his cabin. I was wondering as to what could have gone wrong for him to summon me so hastily…it was still early days into a new role. Lo and Behold! With a mellow smile, he handed over a voucher to me, specifying that it was a gift from the company. The tense anxiety on entering the cabin turned into a pleasant surprise. Everybody loves gifts and I am no exception! I thanked my boss, wished him a Happy Diwali and left office to enjoy the holidays.

Days later, I realised that my boss had in fact given me the gift voucher which was meant for him. He thought that, irrespective of me being a new joinee, I may not feel good that I was the only one left out of this in the whole office. I also got to know that he did not separately requisition another voucher for himself. By his seniority and authority, he could have easily done that. Just spare a thought on what I may have felt on knowing this? How the respect for my Boss would have immediately increased manifold on account of this action, regardless of how big or how small? Agreed that the voucher may not have been of a high monetary value for him. However, what mattered was the gesture of a vital leadership trait which my boss displayed – EMPATHY.

Over the past 2 decades of my professional experience, I have arrived at an understanding that empathy is one of the defining traits which differentiates a great leader from an average one. I gauge that empathy is an invaluable quality for any team member irrespective of the level, and not just for leaders. As per my assessment, there are 3 decisive elements which shape the virtue of empathy.

1).Experiences: One’s own life experiences mould the way in which we empathize with others. An executive who may have climbed up the ladder through the real hard path may, in most cases, be more empathetic to his / her team members and to those around him / her.

2).Getting Into Others’ Shoes: The ability to get into the psyche of the person at the other end and to understand the individual’s thought process is the core. Empathy is different from sympathy. It does not mean being overtly kind to people all the time. However, it does entail understanding others’ thoughts, emotions and accordingly designing your own approach of being a personalized support system for that individual.

3).Goal Synchronization: Empathic leaders are effectively able to grasp the “What’s In It For Me” dimension of each individual. They utilize this unique inherent skill to synchronize the individual goals of their team members with that of the organization and to achieve stellar results. They make it a true “win-win” for their team, for their organizations and for themselves.

My mentioned boss kept mesmerizing me with his competence in reading my thoughts, understanding my emotions and proactively clearing my path through the course of our association. Have you had an experience with an empathetic boss, colleague, friend or any other person? What are your thoughts? I am listening (a.k.a. reading)…please share your views…maximise your Eclat.

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