Empathy in leadership

April 21, 2021 •

5 min reading

Empathy in leadership: social distancing should not mean emotional distancing

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For over a year now we have been practicing social distancing. For most industries, the pandemic has caused dramatic change in the daily life of employees and leaders – and the same goes for students and teachers around the world. Although digital solutions have been found to ensure most business and education needs can be met from a distance, have leaders found the solution to staying truly connected with their teams or students in this new reality? To ensure connection remains, it is important for leaders to demonstrate their soft skills, and in particular the skill of empathy.

Now, more than ever, leaders, whether it be in business or education, need to remember the important role of empathy to ensure that social distancing, or the physical distance with teams or students, doesn’t lead to an emotional disconnect. This comes as the need for a more systematic approach to compassion and benevolence is also noticeable with younger generations, as recent studies show. Educational institutions who understand this will be in the best position to prepare the next generation of compassionate leaders.

At EHL, we believe that excellence is born from the perfect blend of hard and soft skills and therefore our programs are based on dual education (experiential learning) that combine these skills.


It is time to reconnect

Work from home policies, Zoom webinars, Teams meetings, online trainings …. The ongoing Covid-19 crisis has dramatically altered the workplace. Companies and institutions were forced, essentially overnight, to switch to a digital-first working model.

At EHL, we certainly had to act fast and be flexible to shift away from classroom learning towards a safer way to teach and operate from a distance. After an extended period of remote interaction, we clearly see how important it is to not only physically connect, but also emotionally connect with all our stakeholders (colleagues, students, alumni and partners).

People are missing the opportunities that corridor conversations and coffee breaks between classes provided in terms of staying connected and maintaining relationships. Isolation, anxiety, and other mental health issues are of course also exacerbated by the pandemic. Therefore, it is so important to ensure emotional connection remains a priority in our teaching.

This emotional connection is intrinsic to hospitality education because it leads to service excellence. A recent study by the World Health Organisation showed that countries that invest in mental health will reap rewards. Logically, it is the same for companies and education institutions. Having social connections is linked to many aspects of health and wellness, and emotional support is an important factor in preventing and protecting oneself from stress. Now, more than ever, is the right time for all leaders to lean in to their EQ (emotional intelligence) and use empathy to reconnect with their teams.


Perfecting empathy

Empathy – the ability to share someone else’s feelings or experiences by imagining what it would be like to be in that person’s situation - is one of the soft skills that has been identified by the OECD (Organisation for Economic Co-operation and Development) as being essential in their conceptual learning framework in Future of Education and Skills 2030.

We know that preparing students with technical or academic skills alone will not be enough for them to achieve success …. Social and emotional skills, such as perseverance, empathy, mindfulness, courage or leadership are central to this. - Andreas Schleicher,  OECD Director for Education and Skills

Empathy can be shown whether you are talking to someone online or off-line, but in the digital world it takes a bit more effort as social run-ins and private catch ups don’t happen as naturally as when people are sharing an office or classroom. It requires people to disconnect from talking only about business or course material, or only talking during scheduled meetings – instead it requires a bit of extra effort to connect with someone randomly and on a one-on-one basis.

While some people are more naturally empathetic, it is a skill that can be taught. By nurturing three skills: active listening, curiosity and opening yourself to new experiences and perspectives.

First, active listening is an essential part of empathy. Mastering the art of active listening starts by creating an environment where the focus is on being fully present in the moment. It also requires open-mindedness and a conscious effort to not draw conclusions or present bias on what the other person is saying.

Second, individuals that are more curious tend to also be more empathetic. People can practice being curious by asking questions to better understand another person’s perspective (and then actively listening to their answer!). Take the time to listen actively and then ask questions before trying to respond or do any problem solving. The role of a leader is now also one of a coach, where the art of asking questions to drive people to challenge their own thinking and increase their own awareness is vital.

Third – and maybe most importantly – open yourself to new experiences and perspectives. This allows you to draw on experiences that may be similar to what the other person is going through. Pushing your own boundaries and being vulnerable will allow you to imagine what the other person is going through and understand their feelings and emotions, even if you have not been in their exact position.


Teaching empathy

At EHL, we provide experiential education and a social learning context where students can develop their distinct leadership and emotional qualities – including empathy. We truly believe that teaching the skills is not enough, but students need to experience empathy first hand in the learning environment from their teachers and colleagues, so that they can practice it themselves.

Great hospitality leaders know what it is to provide great care for others. And this can only come to them by allowing them – in their educational years – to fully experience what it is to be “on the other side”. Only then will they be able to address staff in the right way, as well as exceed the expectations of a client.

The great hospitality leaders are those who can consider the a wide range of factors in all decisions, namely by showing empathy for the concerned people. In this context, experiential education is the key as it provides the very experience that is needed to manage stakeholders’ expectations, but to also exceed them.


Emotional (re)connection in a post Covid-19 world

The power that empathy has in creating a great customer experience is certainly not a new idea, but the recent Covid-19 realities have reminded us all of its importance. From the hospitality industry perspective, we have seen its impact – creating better service and deeper connections with clients. At EHL, we are reminded of the great impact of our dual-education experience that puts a human-centric approach to our learning and ensures all our graduates learn soft skills, especially genuine empathy, to be successful now and in the future – especially in a world that will have to learn to (re)connect with people from afar.

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Written by

Former CEO, EHL Group until 31 August 2022