Strongest Predictor of Ethical Leadership: Empathy

Craig Dowden of the Financial Post reports that 42 percent of employees believed that their organizations had weak ethical cultures according to a National Business Ethics Survey from 2011.  The latest NBES shows that 41 percent of 6,400 surveyed workers have witnessed office misconduct.  Although this figure is down from 55 percent in 2007, still roughly 2 out of 5 employees observed some form of misconduct on the job.

It’s fitting then that Dowden asks, “how do we demonstrate and promote ethical behavior?”

7650804342_9715bb425fUsing data from the Management Research Group (MRG), Dowden explains that based on 100,000 assessments of executive leadership in the past 30 years, the strongest predictor of ethical leadership is a quality that isn’t the first to come to mind in business – empathy.  Leaders were evaluated across 22 dimensions by their employees, spanning a spectrum of qualities such as technical skill, strategy, communication, control, and authority.  The surveys revealed that the highest ranking of ethical leadership came from those who received the highest scores in their levels of empathy.  Moreover, empathy was “one of the third strongest predictors” for successful leadership more generally.

Since empathy involves the “identification with and understanding of another’s situation, feelings, and motives,” Lowden thinks it makes sense the most empathetic leaders are also the most ethical.  He argues that empathetic leaders “rather than being solely focused on their own needs and their individual responsibilities to their organizations, they are keenly aware of their connection with other people and the broader communities in which they live…They appreciate and respect the needs of others and can take moral action that can serve multiple parties.”

Given this, Lowden gives three recommendations for creating and encouraging empathy within organizations.  The first is that those at the highest levels of the organization must lead by example, because “demonstrating empathy is the best way to integrate it into a workplace.”  The second is that, to the extent possible, organizations should hire based on candidates’ capacity to be empathetic, which could be evaluated via personality surveys or empathy-related questions in candidates’ interviews.  Lastly, organizations should reward employees for their empathetic performances, making sure “empathy becomes a critical part of how key individuals are promoted and recognized.”

How Analysis:

Lowden’s analysis of the importance of empathy for ethical leadership shows that not all leadership is created equal, and that the most effective is inspirational in kind.  Leaders that have a positive impact are those that can inspire and enlist others around them, elevating their behavior in ways that can’t be achieved through coercion, or simply motivated through external incentives.  Instead, leaders who enlist others through empathizing connect with them in ways that are importantly human, and are considered the most ethical and effective.  Ethical leaders recognize the power that derives from people’s collective talents, personalities, creativity, and passions.  In a word, they recognize the power of humanity – a power that comes from people, and not by wielding it over them.

Dov Seidman writes that most business leaders today “apply outdated leadership tools – for example, motivating or coercing (i.e. “shifting”) an employee to become 1.5 percent more productive – instead of developing new ways to inspire elevated behaviors. Trying to “shift” employees to exhibit elevated behaviors is like applying Stone Age tools to a Bronze Age challenge.”  If he’s right, then leadership in the 21st century requires a new set of tools to inspire and elevate others, and if Lowden is right, one of them is empathy.

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