Blog Post

Putting Yourself in Their Shoes

The Importance of Empathetic Leadership
Published September 12, 2022
By Apryl Motley, CAE, SASM

Interview with Robert (Rob) Delprino, Professor of Psychology, State University of New York Buffalo State College

The fall 2022 edition of Trends in Higher Education includes an item about the critical connection between empathetic leadership and positive employee outcomes like innovation, engagement, and inclusion. To gain additional insight into strategies for fostering empathy in the work environment, we turned to SCUP Planning Institute Faculty Member Robert (Rob) Delprino, a professor of psychology at State University of New York Buffalo State College.

An expert in organizational psychology and the stressors facing first responders, Delprino also serves as assistant dean of the School of Natural and Social Sciences. He is the author of the e-book The Human Side of the Strategic Planning Process in Higher Education (SCUP 2013). He has been a member of the college planning council, which guides the development, planning, and implementation of the college’s strategic plan. He has also served as a visiting fellow for the Corrections and Law Enforcement Family Support (CLEFS) Program at the National Institute of Justice of the US Department of Justice, as a volunteer member of a regional critical incident stress management support team for first responders, and as an employee assistance program coordinator for New York State.

Delprino graciously accepted our invitation to address some questions about how institutions can cultivate empathetic leaders.

Would you agree that cultivating empathetic leadership will be a strategic imperative for higher education moving forward as opposed to something that would be “nice to have”?

If empathy is defined as “the skill of (1) connecting with others to identify and understand their thoughts, perspectives, and emotions; and (2) demonstrating that understanding with intention, care, and concern),” then all good leaders know how and when to be empathetic to members of their work community, be it in higher education or other fields. As for it being a strategic imperative moving forward, it has always been a characteristic of good leaders and may be one of the defining factors between those who lead and those who are administrators with the given title of leader in institutions of higher education.

In what ways can organizations cultivate empathetic leadership?

Empathetic leadership can be viewed as a strategic imperative and more than a “feel-good” element—something that is “nice to have.” Having said that, empathy may not be a trait that all people are capable of either due to personality and/or training. A successful leader has an honest sense of their own strengths and weaknesses including the ability to be empathetic. That insight will allow one to choose to develop those skills and/or identity others within the institution who have the skill set to be empathetic and are trusted by other institutional members. This may seem straightforward, but as Peter R. Drucker wrote, “most people think they know what they are good at. They are usually wrong. . . . a person can perform only from strength. One cannot build performance on weaknesses, let alone on something one cannot do at all.”

What approach should leaders take to foster employees’ engagement and help ensure their retention?

Someone in a leadership position can make the choice to develop empathetic skills that enhance one’s cognitive, affective, and behavioral aspects of empathy. What may be more important than enhancing one’s own skills would be a leader creating an empathetic culture within the institution. That is to provide an environment where members’ thoughts, concerns, and feelings are truly acknowledged and responded to. Creating that culture is not an easy task. However, leaders and managers must still manage the organization. There are some truths in running a successful organization from economic and human relations perspectives. Leaders need to balance members’ concerns, needs, and wants with sustaining the health of the institution and the well-being of its members. Not all members’ concerns can be addressed in all ways, and a leader must find the balance between the communication process of listening and responding to members’ concerns.

What would be your most important advice to leaders in higher education about the importance of developing empathy as a skill set?

A concern is that the concept of empathetic leadership may become the latest fad in the discussion of leadership and leadership training. The concept of empathetic leadership hopefully will not become a buzz word and just be given lip service in institutions. For example, a leadership team may decide to express empathy by way of conducting a morale survey of its members to gauge members’ concerns. This would be a good step given what the membership of higher education institutions has experienced in the past few years. However, if the issues identified from such a survey are not addressed or not addressed at all in a meaningful way, this can have a negative effect on employees’ perception of respect for their life circumstances, work-life balance, and intent to leave the institution. Behaviors matter as much as intentions.

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