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These Neuroscience-Based Keys Can Help Leaders Build Empathy

Helen Riess, MD February 27, 2019

Editor’s Note: The following is an adapted excerpt from “The Empathy Effect: 7 Neuroscience-Based Keys for Transforming the Way We Live, Love, Work, and Connect Across Differences” (Sounds True, 2018). Reprinted with permission.

“The Empathy Effect” details the seven-step E.M.P.A.T.H.Y. method for understanding and increasing empathy in work and life.

Leadership is about emotions. We often cite intelligence, instincts, and expertise when describing someone we consider to be a great leader, but great leaders are also exquisitely attuned to others’ emotions and are experts at regulating their own. CEOs and executives are often lauded for their fierce tenacity and decisive actions, politicians for their hardline thinking, and entrepreneurs for their innovative, competitive natures. But these qualities are only a part of the story of leadership. Neurobiology seems to predispose us to a preference for leaders who, above all else, express empathy and compassion.

Richard Boyatzis, professor at Case Western Reserve’s Weatherhead School of Management, emphasizes that “lack of empathic concern in organizations results in multiple disasters, including losing touch with the hearts and minds of your staff, your customers, your suppliers, and community. It goes hand in hand with lack of moral concern, resulting in decreased activation of the brain’s default mode network, the part of the brain that’s active when a person is thinking about others, remembering the past, and planning for the future.” The truly great leaders among us have a combination of keen emotional attunement made possible through shared neural circuitry and quick, decisive, and creative minds that find opportunities and figure out how to execute a plan—which may explain why great leaders are hard to find.

One way to break down the barriers and walls between people is to implement empathy keys within groups rather than just one to-one interactions. Body language and other nonverbal cues are good sources of information that signal what the group is feeling. Few smiles, slouching postures, and a demonstrably reduced energy level provide subtle yet unmistakable clues about a lack of connection to others. I once went to a conference attended by more than 10,000 people where the entire convention center was bathed in a dull energy and indifference. When I stopped to consider where this feeling was coming from, I noticed how many people with empty facial expressions and slumped shoulders were walking through the hallways. This conference took place only a few months after the 9/11 terrorist attacks, and the conference had forged ahead with its prescribed agenda, ignoring the national devastation and how it made people feel. It was a complete flop.

Portraying genuine strength and power requires a bidirectional approach employing empathic accuracy, which allows the audience to inform the leader how to best deliver the message. Effective leaders understand that the ability to perceive shared emotions is a foundation of their empathic response; they use visual and verbal cues to interpret a group’s state of mind. They need to be able to label the crowd’s emotions and adjust the message accordingly through their own verbal and nonverbal cues while maintaining integrity, honesty, and trustworthiness.

Eye gaze between leaders and followers can be an especially powerful force. Subjects in functional MRI (fMRI) studies who are shown angry faces with averted gazes and fearful faces with direct eye contact elicit very strong responses in the amygdala, the emotional center of the brain. This response is normal because threats activate defensiveness and early memories of powerlessness and fear. This is why the gaze of a leader can be so powerful.

The psychology of using eye contact within a group is just as important as it is during a one-on-one encounter, but with a different implementation. Those who are effective speaking into a lens can gaze directly into the camera as if it were another person’s eyes while avoiding the non-blinking, ten-yard stare that comes across as insecure and ineffective. With a live audience, it’s useful to scan the room and make brief eye contact here and there with the audience. Even this fleeting direct gaze at a few people creates a sense of connection with everyone in the room because it conveys the notion that the leader sees not just the group, but each individual as well.

Likewise, tone of voice conveys an estimated 38 percent of the emotional content of what a person communicates. Tone is often more important than the actual words we say and can determine empathic communication, and this is not diminished when speaking to a large audience or through a screen. In his research on effective leadership, Richard Boyatzis has identified that leaders who maintain a calm tone of voice, even when delivering very bad news, can remain effective and respected. Tone of voice is affected by the two nervous system controls. One operates during the fight-or-flight response with raised or shaking voice, unmasking fear and anxiety, and the other is a calm, cool, rational voice in the face of danger. The most effective leaders are able to maintain their cool in the midst of a storm by focusing on what they can control and conveying that they are handling the situation rather than feeling derailed by it.

Hearing the whole person enables leaders to maximize engagement and employee satisfaction. Studies have shown that, especially when companies are forced to downsize and lay off workers, conveyed empathy and compassion contribute to employee loyalty both to the organization and the leader, even among those who are let go. But if downsizing is done callously, that company will have a very hard time regaining those valuable employees in the future when things improve. Shared neural circuits appear to have a long memory.

When using your empathic capacities, you engage not only in active listening, but also in compassionate, responsive listening. Whenever possible, empathic leaders focus on the shared mind connection as much as the points they wish to get across. They are nonjudgmental, even when the feelings of others are in direct conflict with their own. They acknowledge but don’t necessarily allow emotions to control the outcome of events. Spending time as an emotional observer cultivates sensitivity.

While business leaders may believe that the bottom line is their most pressing concern, it’s actually the engagement and vitality of the workforce that determine their success. Empathic leaders understand the purpose that drives people forward. Leaders who place themselves in the shoes of their workers attend to what matters most to their employees: life balance, support, flexibility, goals, and a culture of respect and inclusion. Salary and wages matter much less than most organizations realize.

Leaders with tough and curt attitudes may believe they are projecting authority. Surveys of business leaders find that almost 40 percent worry about being too nice, and more than half think they need to flex the muscle of their authority to stay on top. This fear may be more top of mind with women, who are more predisposed to empathic concern but don’t see this trait so often in some male colleagues. Yet employee surveys say the opposite. They find that leaders are better regarded when they behave with respect and civility. Rather than demonstrating power, strong-arm tactics appear to undermine performance and confidence. In business, people who work for tough, uncaring bosses often say that it saps their motivation and makes them feel less committed to their work. Nearly a third would switch jobs for equal pay if they could work for a company they perceived as more compassionate. We also know that high levels of unrelenting stress lead to a greater number of psychological and physical health problems, which in turn can lead to higher rates of absenteeism, burnout, and lost productivity.

Though it seems like a soft skill, empathy can be learned by intentional training, and it achieves concrete results. Empathic leadership can be a powerful influence in making the world a better place by uniting hearts and minds and bringing separate factions together. A leader with insight understands that the story that plays in her head is not necessarily the same story everyone else has. When a leader uses empathy keys effectively, his or her response comes across as sincere, empathic concern—whether appealing to a group of 10, 10,000 or 10 million.

Social Entrepreneurship / Stakeholder Capitalism
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