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Empathy and Leadership
By Brad Bell
Leadership involves the development and implementation of plans and strategies to achieve positive results for an organization. What are the attributes of a leader that may help to achieve positive results? In this article, I will argue that empathy is a key attribute that helps a leader to achieve positive results.
Empathy can be conceptualized as the ability to understand and vicariously experience what another person is experiencing. If you are experiencing empathy, you see things from the person's perspective, and experience the same emotional state as the person.
Greater empathy in a leader may foster effective leadership for a number of reasons. In this article, I will present two possible reasons. First, greater empathy may increase altruistic motivation, and greater altruistic motivation may lead to making more decisions that reflect the common good. Second, increased empathy in a leader may increase the leader's helping behavior, which in turn, may lead to helping behaviors becoming the norm in the organization.
Altruistic Motivation and the Common Good
A person can be described as altruistically motivated if the person is motivated to help others. Feeling empathy may increase altruistic motivation. Empathy may foster concern for the welfare for another person. If a person is altruistically motivated, the person may be more likely to make decisions that reflect the common good of the organization. The person may make a greater effort at finding win-win solutions, and have a greater understanding of what would reflect the common good.
Making decisions that reflect the common good of the organization can be considered to be an indication of effective leadership. If a decision reflects the common good, then many people in the organization may be happy with the decision.
Helping Behavior and Norms
Greater empathy may increase helping behavior. Einolf (2008) found that empathic concern was positively correlated with some helping behaviors (e.g., giving to a charity). However, because these findings are correlational, one cannot make causal conclusions from the findings.
If a leader is more helpful, then others in the organization may also increase their helping behaviors. This may reflect observational learning. Eventually, helping behaviors may become the norm in the organization. This could result in more cooperation, and more cooperation in an organization may result in being able to achieve more positive outcomes.
Einolf, C. J. (2008). Empathic concern and prosocial behaviors: A test of experimental results using survey data. Social Science Research, 37, 1267-1279.