The role of empathy in high-performing teams

Empathy in leadership

Think back to early 2020. Whispers of an unknown virus became our unimaginable reality. Remember how overwhelming it was? The media coverage (and outbreak) grew exponentially as we controlled what we could with toilet paper, flour, masks and alcohol hand sanitiser.

When we emerge from a crisis, it’s easy to forget the lessons and revert back to business as usual. But this feels different. The Covid pandemic fundamentally shifted how we think about work, life, and ‘”precedented times'”. 

Thankfully, it also changed how we feel about leadership. When almost everything felt up in the air, we relied on an ‘airy fairy’ trait to ground us; empathy. In September 2020, the word “empathy” appeared in the most searches since Google began publishing its data. It held the top spot for business through November. 

In its simplest form, empathy is the ability to recognise and understand the emotions and perspectives of others. It means putting aside our own views and getting curious (an easy starting point is your 1:1s!). Empathy may now be a buzzword, but it’s no one-hit-wonder; many of the best have been leading with it for years.

Empathy unites people behind a mission

Former Prime Minister of New Zealand, Jacinda Ardern, honed her empathetic leadership style before Covid spread its legs. After the Christchurch mosque shootings, her unifying words and decisive action on gun control set the tone: she would put people first. This staunch belief in compassion became her Covid rallying cry. From the first lockdown, until borders reopened almost two years later, she implored New Zealanders to “be strong and be kind”. While perfection is impossible in such situations, her legacy will be the ‘team of five million’ she united behind the mission to save lives.  

Empathy is a transformative tool

Considered one of the world’s greatest leaders, Nelson Mandela helped steer South Africa through an incredibly divisive and dangerous period. After serving 27 years in prison, Mandela famously forgave his captors and then stood for all South Africans. He turned empathy into a weapon against intolerance and used it to diffuse a national crisis.  

Mandela secured his place in the history books, but he’d probably have wanted us to take a leaf out of his book instead. Traditional tools of power and influence may prove ineffective against the challenges of climate change, AI and remote work. Empathy, however, could be the key to transformative change.

Perspective as a superpower

In 1969, humans put the first man on the moon. The NASA command station may have been full of men, but it took countless unsung women and minorities to make the impossible possible. 

Varying perspectives (aka diversity of thought) is a critical ingredient to solving complex challenges. The most effective leadership trait for diverse teams? Empathy. It may not be rocket science, but it certainly powered rockets in a time when engineers, mathematicians and seamstresses used basic computing capability to reach the stars.

The hardest skill to master

Understanding various perspectives enables us to make better decisions, design innovative solutions, and even negotiate for ourselves. It’s now clear that organisations that led with empathy during the Covid pandemic were the most effective. Post-pandemic, leaders who want to ‘make the boat go faster‘ continue to prioritise it as a practice.

Far from a fluffy “nice to have”, empathy is perhaps one of the toughest leadership tools to master. It requires courage, conviction, commitment to a vision, and extreme emotional control. It can be the first tool abandoned in the face of big challenges and busy schedules.

As a community on a mission to change the face of leadership? It could be our greatest strength.

30 second action:

Do you have a strongly held belief? Get curious about the counter perspective. Talk to someone who thinks differently to you, with the sole purpose of understanding their views. Don’t try to convince them of yours; spend the whole conversation asking about theirs! Does it change how you feel at all?

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