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Why Are “Soft Skills” So Hard to Get Right?

An illustration of a person plugging the heart and mind together

Empathy is among the most important traits employees want in a leader. It reduces turnover. It increases productivity. It leads to a more inclusive environment. These aren’t just my observations; they are backed up by data and research.

In fact, studies show that empathy has surpassed nearly every other leadership characteristic as the primary indicator of a strong supervisory bond. Tracy Brower, a Ph.D. sociologist who researches workplace happiness, calls it “the most important leadership skill.

(Before we go any further, a personal plea: Can we please stop calling empathy and emotional intelligence “soft skills”? It’s clear that these leadership traits are not just fluffy extras, but rather they are necessities for basic functionality, productivity, and growth in today’s workplace. Leaders and teams fail without a firm understanding and implementation of empathy. There’s nothing soft about that. It is a fundamental building block of success.)

May is both Global Leadership Month and Mental Health Awareness Month, and the convergence of these two realms is where I spend a lot of time. Empathy lies at the intersection of leadership and mental health. Before we go any further, we should define what empathy in the workplace is — and what it is not.

  • At its core, empathy is the ability to listen, understand, and respect the feelings and experiences of others, to be open to their unique ideas and work styles. It enhances human connection and authentic engagement, leading to beneficial outcomes not just for the business, but also for all of the individuals involved.
  • Empathy is not oversharing emotions, ignoring personal boundaries, or allowing one person’s situation to impact the entire team’s happiness or performance. It’s not “giving someone a pass”. And it’s not sympathy. I love this piece about what we often get wrong about empathetic leadership.

My clients come to me with challenges that involve communication, collaboration, and trust. These issues impact even the most close-knit, high-performing teams. Think about any human relationship you have: with your spouse or partner, your family, or close friends. Communication, trust, and understanding are usually the culprit of any disagreement, resentment, or distance you may periodically encounter. Left to fester, these flare-ups can be devastating. But addressing the issues and building a shared language and emotional intelligence toolbox for moving through these challenges is transformative — and not just for the way we feel, but for the results we get.

There’s a secret sauce to empathy that might surprise you. When you think of empathy, you might think of other people. Being empathetic means considering your approach to other people, like your coworkers, right? While that’s true, being truly emotionally intelligent starts with awareness: awareness of self and awareness of others. When you are self-aware, you learn a vocabulary around yourself and what motivates you, and this translates into understanding of how other people are motivated and what they need.

I am so passionate about the importance of this subject that I am making one of my most popular client webinars, Objective Self-Awareness: Why It’s Essential for Great Leadership, available for free. In it, you’ll find actionable steps to help you improve internal and external self awareness.

Here’s an example of what this looks like in the real world. One of my clients came to me with a sort of pride in what she saw as her lack of empathy. She saw her resistance to emotion and empathy as a sort of shield. “I don’t have emotions at work,” she told me, almost as a badge of honor. However, her rapport with her direct reports was not good. She didn’t understand why they made the choices and decisions that they did, and that led to growing frustration. When I first met with this leader and her team, it was clear she did not fully trust them and they did not fully trust her. We utilized the EQ-i 2.0 tool suite to diagnose and generate data points around not just the challenges, but insights into the entire team. Together, the team used the information to identify areas of emotional intelligence and developed strategies to track and measure progress. One-on-one coaching and group workshops ensured their progress was consistent and reinforced. Six months later, the leader who initially approached me for help reports that she is less reactive and more open and encouraging with her team. That has led to a total transformation in the culture of trust.

This is just one example. Time and time again, I’ve seen the power of science-based tools, such as the EQ-i 2.0 and The Predictive Index, to make real and lasting change in an organization. Leading with objective, logical empathy is a journey — one that is worth the investment every time. Contact me for a free consultation to find out which solution might be right for your team.

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