Remember, Leader: It’s Not About You

David had one goal as he walked down the hall with his head hung low: make it back to his office without running into anyone. He watched the floor pass beneath him, still unable to believe his end-of-the-month meeting with Greg, his manager, went the way it did. A few weeks earlier, a family emergency had David out of the office and working remotely when he could. Going into today’s meeting, he knew his numbers were a tad short, and he brought great ideas to bounce back the next month. As soon as David had sat down, though, Greg launched into business needs and objectives, pausing only when his phone indicated a text message or email. David, a high-energy and enthusiastic employee, sat stymied the entire meeting, wondering if Greg remembered why he’d been out of the office most of the month. At the end of the meeting, Greg looked to David and asked, “Are we on the same page?” David, still bewildered, responded with a monotone “absolutely,” sensing Greg’s question was less about David’s well-being and more an indication that the meeting had finished. As he walked away from Greg’s office, David’s shoulders sank alongside his enthusiasm. He replayed the meeting in his head and said under his breath, “He never even asked how my wife and I were doing.”  

David neared his office just as Susan, another manager, turned the corner. She noticed David’s burdened pace. Without stepping in his way, she asked, “Have a rough meeting?” Her tone was kind and affirmed that David wasn’t thrilled. He slowed to politely acknowledge Susan. Assuming David wanted a moment to himself, she quickly offered, “That couldn’t have been easy after this month. Let me know how I can help.” His posture softened as he mustered a smile, and gained new energy as they parted ways.

Susan and Greg both possess the requisite technical skills for their roles, and they understand the strategic goals of the company. Both know effective leaders resolve issues and alleviate constraints. But only one demonstrated a key capacity of truly effective leadership, and it was the manager who saw David as both an employee and human. What set Susan apart from Greg? Her empathy is a competency within the third EQ domain: social awareness.

Social Awareness: It’s Not About You

Following the domain of emotional self-control, social awareness is a leader’s ability to read and understand what informs others’ decisions—their emotions, opinions, values, etc.—to address their behavior and needs in a timely manner. A leader’s social awareness comprises the two competencies of empathy and organizational awareness. Social awareness transitions leaders from understanding, naming and navigating their own emotions to recognizing that others’ emotions inform their attitudes and behaviors just the same. Social awareness reminds leaders, as one PROMARK coach suggests, “It’s not about you.” 

Just as emotional self-awareness supplies leaders with an emotional “GPS,” leaders’ social awareness supplies them with a relational “GPS.” As Travis Bradberry shares in Emotional Intelligence 2.0

“Instead of looking inward to learn about and understand yourself, social awareness is looking outward to learn about and appreciate others. Social awareness is centered on your ability to recognize and understand the emotions of others. Tuning into others’ emotions as you interact with them will help you get a more accurate view of your surroundings, which affects everything from relationships to the bottom line.”

Being attentive to others’ emotions helps leaders adjust their understanding of a situation in order to lead in a productive way. Without this awareness, leaders are likely to develop harmful habits and disruptive tendencies that promote distrust, frustration, and even anger from others. For leaders to encounter the beneficial results of social awareness, learning the competency and skill of empathy is non-negotiable. 

Empathy: Making Their Shoes, Your Shoes

Empathy is one’s ability to understand and share the feelings of another. It’s considering what life is like—emotionally and behaviorally—in someone else’s shoes. And possessing empathy sets effective leaders apart from others. Empathetic leaders increase their effectiveness as leaders. They understand what they feel when they feel it, and why they feel it, and then they seek to understand the same in others through intentional, active interest. When leaders put themselves in their team members’ shoes, it enables them to connect deeply and quickly cover more ground together.

A recent study by Development Dimensions International (DDI) showed that leaders who respond with empathy perform more than 40 percent higher in coaching, engaging others, planning and organizing, and decision-making.1

Teams want to be led by empathetic leaders. As one PROMARK coach shared, “Based on my coaching experience, empathetic leaders are liked, respected, trusted, and more likely to maintain a committed followership through challenging times than someone who lacks social awareness.”

Leaders with empathy are more likely to foster and cultivate high-performing, agile teams through deeper trust, less stress, greater curiosity, and inclusiveness, as well as stronger conflict management. 

In turn, empathetic leaders harness opportunities to develop strong teams and grow bottom lines:

“According to the 2016 Empathy Index, a report published by UK consulting firm The Empathy Business that seeks to analyze the internal culture of 170 companies on major financial indexes, ‘The top 10 companies (on the 2015 list) … increased in value more than twice as much as the bottom 10 and generated 50 percent more earnings (defined by market capitalization).’”2

Empathy is a sort of “secret, yet not so secret” sauce for effective leadership. Leaders who understand empathy quickly recognize its business value. But infusing it into one’s leadership rhythms doesn’t happen automatically. A 2018 study on empathy showed that a majority of CEOs believed their workplaces were empathetic, but only about half of the surveyed employees believed their CEOs were empathetic. Even so, the good news is that leaders can begin enhancing their understanding of empathy and harnessing its potential with their teams and companies today. Here are four practices you can begin to increase your empathy. 

  1. Practice watching for EQ in others: Although it can be incredibly helpful and transparent to inform your teams you’re working on your EQ and empathy, sometimes choosing an outside “arena” to begin developing it can feel like a safer place to start. When running an errand or being out somewhere, observe others in a variety of scenarios. Ask yourself what their behavior and body language may be signaling about their emotions. Consider their speech patterns—tone, pacing, etc.—using all the senses to consider what’s occurring internally to produce their behavior. Another great way to practice this, without the potential social awkwardness, is by watching movies to identify the emotions of various characters. Because emotions connect viewers to characters, screenwriters tend to offer both what a character does and how they were feeling before or after an incident or important plot point. Take note and practice connecting those dots. Once you feel comfortable doing this “out of office,” begin applying this in the office.

  2. Practice Active Listening: Most leaders know listening is important, but they also know the temptation to pretend to listen. Team members can sense and be turned off by this. At the core of active listening are a leader’s focus and intentionality. And the focus is not only on someone’s words but it’s also on tone, volume, pace, and eye contact. Active listening helps leaders identify the subtleties of hidden messages, whether verbal or nonverbal. As management expert and author Peter Drucker said, “The most important thing in communication is hearing what isn’t said.” A leader’s body posture is important, too. Employees feel confident a leader has listened to them when a leader chooses to face them when speaking and the leader has set aside his or her phone or closed the laptop.

  3. Practice Correcting a Foul Ball: Even socially aware leaders have off days and hit foul balls. Perhaps a leader reads a scenario wrong or discovers a moment of humor was misplaced and garnered a different response. Instead of assuming why there was a disconnect, or pretending there wasn’t one, ask those involved what happened and consider different ways to act next time. It’s important in these moments to avoid questions engineered to validate your interpretation of the moment. Initiate the scenario by indicating the desire to learn more, for example, “I thought I understood what was going on, but I think I was off. Can you help me understand what I may have missed?” Allow someone to answer fully, which may require you to ask the question in different ways if you receive one-word answers. 

  4. Practice Proactive Conversation: Empathy is not exclusively an extroverted or introverted skill. Those with introverted tendencies tend to be better listeners, while extroverts tend to feel more comfortable asking questions. And learning to initiate proactive conversation develops both capacities, helping leaders discover ways to connect with others. Consider and practice intentional, comfortable open-ended questions: “What’s the best thing that’s happened to you this week?” or “What have you seen or heard lately that’s encouraged you?” Questions like these allow team members to think and offer thoughts about various things, which provide data for considering how they may feel and process a future, more energized work scenario. It’s best to avoid potentially divisive or “hot” topics. And once a question is asked, make sure active listening follows.

Empathy supplies leaders with a core tool for creating effective, lasting results. It connects leaders with others, helping ensure everyone moves forward from the same place, bringing about healthy teams and exciting growth opportunities. And every leader can begin that journey today. Don’t go it alone.


At PROMARK, we have a framework to help organizations and leaders grow and harness empathy. Whether it’s one-on-one or in teams, our coaches will help any leader develop and apply the skills and tools of EQ to bring about its exciting changes and results.

Join us next month for part 5 as we look at our last EQ domain of relationship management.

For leaders ready to begin the conversation about developing their emotional intelligence, we’re ready to help. Contact us today.

1. Research was conducted with more than 15,000 leaders from 300 companies in nearly 20 countries.


Remember, Leader: It’s Not About You
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