In an earlier post, we introduced the concept of leadership awareness triad – a practice of channeling our focus into three distinct pathways – our self, others, and the world. Focusing on our self and being aware of our body sensations lets us develop sharp emotional intelligence, as well as strengthen our skill of cognitive control. Focusing on others takes this experience deeper.

The word ‘attention’ comes from the Latin attendere, meaning ‘to reach toward’. This captures the pathway of focusing on others, which is the foundation of empathy and the ability to build social relationships. Much has been spoken about leaders having empathy. But it’s a broad skill. Thus, organizational researchers have found three forms of empathy, that enhance leadership effectiveness.

  • Cognitive empathy. This helps leaders explain and express themselves in ways that are meaningful and easy to relate to. And it actually requires leaders to think about their feelings – one step beyond just feeling them. In other words, it is an extension of self-awareness. The neural circuits that allow us to think about our own thoughts and to monitor the feelings, also let us apply the same reasoning to other people.
  • Emotional empathy. This springs from parts of our brain like the amygdala and the hypothalamus, that allow us to feel fast without thinking deeply. It lets us tune into people and their feelings, when we hear their stories. Our brain patterns match theirs. That’s why we ‘feel’ other people’s pain and joy. Thus, it helps us manage our employees. Accessing such empathy involves two things: a deliberate focus on how we echo someone’s feelings, and an awareness of their face, voice, and body language.
  • Empathic concern. It enables you to sense not just how people feel but what they need from you. The roots of such empathy are triggered by a chemical in the prefrontal cortex, which is associated with caring. At the same time, our amygdala releases a chemical which tunes us into dangers. Thus, we intuitively experience the distress of another as our own. But deliberately weigh how much we value his or her well-being, and how safe it is for us to help. This dance between intuition and deliberation requires us to manage our personal distress without numbing ourselves to others’ pain.

Why are such deep insights into empathy essential for leadership effectiveness?

Research suggests that as people rise through the ranks and gain power, their ability to perceive and maintain personal connections tends to suffer. In studying interactions between people of varying status, Dacher Keltner, a psychologist at Berkeley, found that higher-ranking individuals consistently focus less on lower-ranking people and are more likely to interrupt the conversations. Unfortunately, where we see ourselves in the social ladder, tends to inform how much attention we pay to others.

Thus, we need to shift out attention consciously, to tap into the wisdom and resources our teams carry. And that demands we tune into the social context around us, notice people more, share more stories, and develop deep curiosity or inquisitiveness. Are you game?

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