Empathy is one of the five components of emotional intelligence. But what actually is it? And why is it such an important quality in effective leaders?
Daniel Goleman – the father of emotional intelligence – has described three types of empathy, which I feel the veterinary world cannot do without. In this climate of small practices being bought up by bigger practices and those becoming swallowed whole by enormous corporates, we need to be working harder than ever to create a sense of rapport and emotional connection among those on the ‘shop floor’.
By using cognitive empathy, we understand how the other person’s mind works. We can see things from their perspective. We understand the language they use and can use similar language back to them effectively so they hear us. Cognitive empathy is essential when giving performance feedback and when communicating with clients. Communication is key. Unfortunately, it can also be used by those with twisted motivations to manipulate others; bullying in the workplace would be one example. These people lack the second type, emotional empathy.
Emotional empathy means we can feel a person’s distress and rejoice in their good news, which can bring team members together at joyful times. Emotional empathy is essential for good leadership, effective teamwork and understanding the needs and desires of our clients.
When running at high levels, emotional empathy creates a sense of rapport with clients and an emotional connection between team members. This gives rise to an overall harmony in teams, which are more productive as a result.
However, if you are a leader who takes it upon themselves to be the sounding board for the team, but aren’t able to metabolise other people’s concerns, this can lead to emotional exhaustion and eventually emotional burnout.
As a counsellor and as a team member in my veterinary practice to whom colleagues in distress often turn, I have to exercise a degree of self-regulation to prevent burnout.
Counsellors debrief onto supervisors, who in turn debrief onto others and so the chain of avoiding emotional exhaustion is strong. Alongside that chain of debriefing, we must use self-awareness to be conscious of the toll it takes on us, and self-regulation to avoid it burdening us and affecting our own mental well-being.
Empathic concern means we see a person in distress and have an overwhelming need to spontaneously help them out. These are the proactive leaders who speak to the VDS on their vet’s behalf when something terrible has happened. They organise the CPD for struggling employees. They see someone is distressed and take them somewhere for a confidential chat before it becomes an untenable situation. They need counselling for their team members who need it before the crisis or the resignation happens.
In successful practices, especially these days when many of us are working for corporate practices (or will be soon), these three types of empathy need to be running at full capacity from grass roots up to HR to help the people facing customers thrive, be productive, proactive and remain in the profession.