Human Capital Management

CFO Leadership: How to Develop and Practice Empathy

CFOs lacking investment in empathy will needlessly struggle to build and scale high-functioning teams.
Erik KellenerNovember 18, 2022
CFO Leadership: How to Develop and Practice Empathy
Photo: Getty Images

Traditional definitions of empathy refer to it as the ability to “put yourself in another person’s shoes.” However, this is more of a sound byte and doesn’t illustrate empathy’s valued nuances.

For example, cognitive empathy is the ability to recognize and understand the emotion that someone else is experiencing. Affective empathy, alternatively, is not only identifying and understanding the emotion but taking on and mirroring that same feeling. 

Needless to say, CFOs who demonstrate affective empathy run the risk of experiencing burnout with the sheer scale of feeling everyone’s emotions. 

Theresa Wiseman, a well-known nursing scholar, defines the four attributes of empathy as:

  1. Perspective taking

  2. Staying curious (e.g. absence of judgment)

  3. Recognizing the emotions in others

  4. Reflecting back on the emotions you observe

Why is Empathy in Leadership Important?

It creates connections between leaders and those they lead. Connection is an important ingredient to establishing and growing trust. Empathy also helps to build strong relationships, it’s the currency a leader uses to navigate their organization. 

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  Erik Kellener

Lastly, empathy has the ability to scale throughout an organization. In fact, empathy is known to be contagious. And what better way to scale it, than to lead by example. 

Leaders Who Lack Empathy

Leaders who lack the ability to connect with their teams will experience mistrust. Over time, their team will lose confidence in their ability to lead. The ability to connect to others is a critical skill for today’s leaders. It is closely tied to team productivity and innovation as well as employee retention and acquisition. 

For example, a leader who is seen as lacking empathy (trust) will struggle to identify and understand how to meet their team’s needs in order to improve the group’s productivity. As a result, employee retention will suffer. In demand, top performers will migrate elsewhere to a place they can feel a sense of trust and connection with leadership.

A leader who is seen as lacking empathy (trust) will struggle to identify and understand how to meet their team’s needs in order to improve the group’s productivity.

Disconnected leaders will be challenged to build a creative and trusting space with their team. Without this space, innovation seeds cannot be planted and nurtured. Teams won’t feel safe taking risks or exploring uncertainty — a foundation for innovation to occur.

Lastly, leaders lacking empathy will be unable to recruit top talent due to their inability to convey a sense of connection and trust, a clear requirement for recruitment. 

How to Develop Empathy

Acquiring empathy skills, like any other skill, requires both practice and learning. Similar to a muscle, it can be developed over time. Some common ways to start training the muscle include the following. 

Learning more about emotional intelligence. Not only will you learn about empathy towards others, but you’ll also learn how to better identify and bring awareness to your own emotions and reactions (e.g. self-awareness). As you gain a deeper self-awareness of your reactions, the opportunity to self-regulate your emotions arises. Self-regulation benefits leaders by not only building awareness but acknowledging the emotions being experienced, all while improving their ability to maintain focus. It essentially brings the unconscious to the conscious. In a stressful situation, leaders need to stay grounded, and one of the ways to do that is by self-regulating. 

Goleman’s Emotional Intelligence, the gold standard for learning about empathy and the Emotional Quotient (EQ), is a great place to start.

Practicing and experimenting. As with any new skill, practice is essential. As an initial step, start by taking notice of others’ emotions and experiences. See if you can identify their emotions. Consider “people watching.” Better yet, the next time you have a conversation with someone, focus on how they seem to you (e.g. emotion, body language, the pace of speech).

While taking notice, focus on maintaining an open mindset. Avoid concluding why another is feeling a certain way or how those feelings may impact others. 

Once you’ve practiced and feel ready, consider putting your awareness into action by not only noticing with curiosity but by reflecting back on your observations during a conversation. “I noticed in the meeting earlier, you seemed to react to Sam’s comment. At the end, you bolted out of the room and slammed the door behind you. You seemed angry. Am I correct? How about we set up some time later today? I’d like to know more.” 

Learning and building. Building empathy skills can be difficult. For those who want a more guided approach, consider taking a leadership course that includes content for learning the concepts and provides a “dojo” for you to practice these skills with other students in the course.

Many of our coaching clients seek to improve their empathy as a leader; they frequently feel blocked in practicing empathy, because they fear it will detract from maintaining high levels of accountability. As Stanford Professor Ed Batista shares, “This is a false dichotomy.” Accountability and empathy can (and should) co-exist for high-performance leadership. Coaching works to build muscles on both sides.

Other Methods to Develop Empathy

There are myriad practices available to promote healthy levels of empathy. Many of them have the added benefit of developing other desired leadership qualities.

  • Mindfulness: Practices to bring more awareness and presence to your day to day

  • Communication: Frameworks such as “Non-violent communication,” Crucial Conversations, and Authentic Relating can help to develop further your ability to have healthy, connected conversations that don’t get derailed by reactive behaviors

  • Reflexive experiences: Practice exploring your own reactions and regulation by experiencing content on controversial topics, specifically areas where your view is divergent from others’ views (e.g. politics). 

I recently came across Braver Angels, a platform that represents multiple views on highly controversial topics. Viewing the content was a great exercise in exploring my own biases and reactions and opened up higher degrees of empathy for others who don’t share my views.

Empathy is a required skill for today’s leaders and impacts key areas of operating and growing a business. Fortunately, empathy is a skill that can be developed over time, but it requires learning and regular experimentation. This can be accomplished through books, courses, or learning-related practices.

A former technology executive, Erik Kellener is a leadership coach with Evolution, a coaching, culture, and leadership development firm.