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The importance of empathy in the new world of work

It wasn’t long ago that if someone said "leader", the most common image that came to mind was of a strong, charismatic, loud, (probably male), chest-beater, who drummed up support through the sheer power of their ego. This, thankfully, is no longer so often the case. There is still the odd shouty chest-beater, but most of us now recognise there are better ways to lead and more useful tools to deploy.

One of these is empathy. Long seen as a soft skill, maybe a useful tool for managers who wanted to be liked, it certainly hasn’t always been regarded as something for leaders who want to succeed to bother with or display. This is finally changing. Long after writers such as Stephen Covey and Daniel Goleman explored ideas of empathy and emotional intelligence (EQ) there is more evidence than ever that empathy will play an increasingly important part in the lives of successful leaders.

It’s a subject that Supper Club member John McMahon explores in depth in his new book, The Power of Leading with Empathy: The challenges of leading in a non 9-to-5 world. McMahon doesn’t equivocate on the importance he places on the e-word. “Post-2020, it is empathy that will now be the number one, must-have skill of every leader.”

McMahon’s book explores what he has learned from his personal experience and his own approach. Having long ago accepted he was something of a “softy” (not always regarded a good thing in the age of the chest beaters), he writes now with evident pride about his own leadership priorities, “I get huge fulfilment seeing other people being happy and it just so happens that a by-product of happy, satisfied people is a loyal and incredibly successful team.”

The pandemic changed the workplace forever, but in many ways it merely accelerated trends that were already evident for those willing to look. It may have flipped us more quickly into a post-9-to-5 world, but the trend for successful leaders to have to learn to become what McMahon describes as “mentors, educators and encouragers” is not new.

A new generation of employees are not impressed by shouty, macho leaders. They want the kind of leaders who inspire through understanding and sharing, who see success not just in hard numbers, but in issues such as offering meaningful work and a supportive environment. As McMahon puts it, the difference is that “Empathetic leadership means teaching and encouraging, not bullying and dictating.”

There is always a risk that a book such as this could end up as a collection of fluffy puff about the wonders of being nice. McMahon swerves that challenge and manages to get a serious message across (empathy is the only tool that will help you succeed as a leader in the new world of work) without it reading like a series of self-help slogans.

As a founder of a successful agency business, McMahon intends for the book to help others learn from his own recent experiences (as well as those of the many business leaders he interviewed as research). He achieves this through focusing throughout on practical tips and advice. Whether it’s about how to help employees working at home draw boundaries between their work life and their personal, or how to manage teams where there are strong but different opinions on the ideal work location.

As well as its core message on empathy, the book covers a wide range of related issues, from the impact on organisational culture and the value of purpose, as well as offering a very frank assessment of the pros and cons of the various new types of working arrangements (and some tips on how to reconcile differing views on the preferred approach).

What’s clear from the book is that the world of work will never return to how it was in early March 2020. We all need to develop skills and tools to manage in the new world, whatever that ends up being.

For McMahon there will be no one single right way to work and this very ambiguity is further evidence of the need for greater empathy. Things that were previously simple, such as setting a policy for office and home working, are now fraught with complexity and emotional stress. Developing a more empathetic approach will be the one tool that can help cut through such complexity.