What’s all the rage right now in business now?

As Gary Vaynerchuk aptly puts it, the world is different than how it used to be. All the world’s knowledge can be pulled using your phone and when it comes to technical skills, a quick Google search gives you dozens of experts to talk to.

In the end, leadership comes down to the people. No matter how skilled your team is, if they cannot perform to their best ability, then that is on you.

So when it comes to differentiating yourself, your emotional intelligence is now a crucial factor. This is where is many get discouraged. But there’s a silver lining.

Empathy, like leadership, is learnable. No matter your background, expertise or personality, you can develop your empathy. And that in turn will transform your leadership skills.

Empathy and Leadership

So why is this so important? Surely there were effective CEOs and managers who might not have been the most people-oriented leaders.

What these leaders had were certain strengths that could push their teams to achieve great results. But even with these strengths, they still had moments of empathy. Steve Jobs was notorious for being a bit of a jerk. Yet he had his moments of understanding too.

Leaders with high empathy are able to turn around a culture, get the ball rolling with a new team or even turn a poor performer into a high performer.

Again, empathy has nothing to do with personality. You don’t need to be particularly “nice” in order to have empathy.

What great leaders have instead is an enormous understanding of their people. With this in hand, they can pinpoint the root of many challenges and create a level of motivation/engagement in their teams that HR could only dream of.

The Source of Empathy

If you’ve heard so much about empathy before, you’re probably a little curious about how to develop it. The short answer is by expanding your perspective.

If you’ve ever traveled to a third world country and experienced how people live there, you may suddenly be grateful for what you have back home. If there ever was a time when you were single and you heard about a close friend having children, you might have a moment of self evaluation. These are both shifts in perspective.

Big milestones aside, perspective is best developed through a sense of nonjudgment. This is when you no longer think of anything as good or bad. This prevents situations such as when you think you’re right when you’re actually wrong.

Nonjudgment gets you out of your own head.

When you lead a group of people, your own perspective is no longer the only one that matters. If you only think of yours as “good” and others as “bad”, you’ll never open up to the possibility that someone else’s ideas/methods/opinions could do your organization more good than what you came up with.

The world is not black and white; your thinking should reflect that.

Empathy in Action

A major ally of nonjudgment is curiosity. When you approach everything with a questioning eye, you get to find out what is underneath the surface.

One major challenge leaders face is dealing with conflict. If your team is split between two choices, how effective is it to your end goal if you demonize the other side? In terms of both short term and long term results, probably not at all.

But what if you approached this split with curiosity and empathy?

When you listen with a sense of nonjudgment, the other side doesn’t feel vindicated for their ideas and will lay out their reasoning. In fact, studies have shown that people can agree with decisions they didn’t vote for as long as they felt heard.

Another major challenge is creating motivation/engagement. Your people get motivated when they get what they want. Often leaders and HR mistakenly assume they know what their staff actually want. Why is this?

What about the fact that everyone is different?

By taking the easy way to group people up by common desires, companies can create quite a gap of misunderstanding. For example, many people think that millennials want certain perks in their workplace. Others think they all just want something meaningful. These are all true, but partially.

Everyone wants different things. If you really want to motivate people, you need to understand their end goals. Is this person solely focused on paying off their student debt/saving up for something? Pay them more. Does someone else really want to be in a more creative role? Find them that role.

The idea that people are only motivated by money, status and promotions is a stereotype. There is no one size fits all anymore. Without empathy, you’d have a hard time understanding what people value and how to respect that.

And So…

If you really want to gain more empathy, the best way is to open up your world. There are so many people, beliefs, cultures, opinions and ideas out there. You don’t have to agree with them. But what if you looked into why all these different thoughts existed?

Once you break free of your assumptions, that’s when you get out of your own head and into the head of a leader.