The Talent Poole

Empathetic leadership

By Jon Poole

- Last updated on GMT

Ultimately, leadership is about people and, in particular, about having an emotional understanding of customers, of those working within the business, and of other key stakeholders.
Ultimately, leadership is about people and, in particular, about having an emotional understanding of customers, of those working within the business, and of other key stakeholders.

Related tags Leadership

Jackie Bowen shares her experiences and views with ‘The Talent Poole' on empathetic leadership and what this means to her as executive director of the Clean Label Project.

Empathy is the behaviour or capability of having or gaining an emotional understanding or appreciation of the needs and perceptions of others. The often-quoted idiom: ‘Before you judge a man (person), walk a mile in his (their) shoes’​, describes empathy very well. As leaders, it is critical that we learn to truly understand others’ needs and motivations, if we want to bring people with us.

Bowen agreed: “When I consider those who are involved in our project, I recognise the need to understand and engage with people at both a personal and professional level – everyone has a story, and it’s important for me to understand and appreciate their reasons for wanting to get involved.”

Empathy versus sympathy

It is important in leadership, to differentiate between empathy and sympathy – these terms are often used interchangeably. To clarify, a leader may feel sympathy for an individual based on the circumstances they are facing and yet, remain disconnected. There are occasions when this sort of sympathetic approach is needed and appropriate. However, an empathetic leader is not merely sympathising, they are attempting to recognise and appreciate what another person is thinking and experiencing.

Data versus intuition

The ability to be empathetic is an innate behaviour for some leaders – through natural traits or learnt behaviours some seem able to intuitively tap into the needs and mindsets of others. This can be an extremely powerful attribute; however, it can also lead to some dangerous assumptions. As managers and leaders, we are constantly looking for patterns and similarities to enable us to quickly assess people or situations. As we explored in an earlier column on diversity​, it is important for leaders not to assume they can appreciate things from someone else’s perspective without at least testing these assumptions.

Gaining consumer insights

Gaining insights based on data and not intuition becomes particularly important when considering the perspectives of groups of individuals – whether this is a whole team or a particular demographic of consumers. Bowen is mindful of this: “It’s critical in our work that we have conversations with our stakeholders – especially consumers. It all starts with our mission: ‘To bring truth and transparency to food and consumer product labelling’. It is fascinating to then explore what this means to different stakeholders. Most consumers assume the food they purchase is going to be safe and, of course, this is most often the case. But when, for example, you start talking to specific at-risk groups, such as pregnant women, those with small infants and even pet owners, the conversations can get quite emotive and specific.”

What Bowen refers to as ‘conversations’ can take many forms. There is no doubt that true face-to-face discussions with individuals or small groups can be extremely insightful. In-person or online focus groups enable businesses to really delve into the mindsets of different consumer groups and test assumptions. However, reaching and trying to understand larger demographics is now made so much easier through various forms of online social media – what Bowen refers to as ‘the court of public opinion’. This may, for example, mean maintaining a watching eye on conversations resulting from stories playing out in the media and acting as an educational catalyst. Or it could involve checking conversations on ‘mummy blogs’, or engaging more directly with engaged consumers who have, in Bowen’s words: “Kicked the tyres, read the labels and decided to get more actively involved.”

Empathy at a team level

So far, we have considered empathetic leadership from the perspective of developing a better customer understanding. However, equally important is the ability to really get to know those in the team. When it comes to people’s motivations, this cannot be a ‘one-size-fits-all’ approach. A leader must invest time and emotional intelligence, really getting to know each and everyone around them who are, ultimately, responsible for delivering the mission.

People will only open up if they feel there is a sense of trust. Bowen agreed: “I believe in leadership through transparency – I probably share a lot more detail than many others do, but I believe this creates a climate of trust which, in turn, encourages people to be more open with me about themselves.”

Collage Maker-10-Aug-2023-04-52-PM-6691
Jackie Bowen

Jaclyn Bowen MPH, MS is a food safety and quality systems engineer and executive director of Clean Label Project, a US-based national non-profit and consumer advocacy organisation with the mission to bring truth and transparency to food and consumer product labelling. Through data, science, and benchmarking, Clean Label Project uses retail sampling and testing to benchmark product quality and purity of best selling food and consumer products and award Clean Label Project's coveted evidence-based Purity Award.  

Jackie was the researcher and co-author behind the largest academic peer-reviewed study ever conducted on lead and cadmium in baby food and infant formula which was published in the international multidisciplinary journal, Science of the Total Environment. The capstone of her career (to date) was presenting before the 63rd session of the United Nations Commission on Narcotics in Vienna, Austria on Clean Label Project's study on the levels of industrial and environmental contaminants in cannabis products in 2020. Before coming to Clean Label Project, she held numerous technical, standards development, food safety, quality, and executive roles within the World Health Organization Collaborating Centre, NSF International. Her expertise is in organic, gluten-free, non-GMO labelling, food safety, and label claim substantiation and compliance.

Jackie holds a Bachelor of Science in environmental biology, a Master of Science in quality engineering and a Master of Public Health in management and policy. 

Knowing what motivates individuals and being able to adapt your approach, based on their specific needs and circumstances at a given time, can be incredibly powerful. It is important that these conversations don’t become intrusive, however most people are generally happy to talk about what motivates them if this is done in a genuine and conversational way – and, of course, it also requires the leader to be in active listening mode.

Getting to know the motivations and needs of those in the team is obviously easier when the team is smaller. Bowen reflected: “I only have a small team of paid staff, some working full-time, some part-time but I also rely on a team of volunteers who I also need to keep motivated and on-message. Each of these have different reasons for having originally got involved and it’s been really important for me to understand these so that I can tap into their different motivations.

Turning understanding into action

Being empathetic is only one half of the story. Once a leader has gained insights, whether through their natural acuity and sensing, or through data driven analysis, they then need to act on them.

When it comes to customers, subsequent responses need to remain truly customer-centric and, most likely, highly nuanced to respond to specific customer segments – there is obviously no point in developing detailed profiles of consumer needs, if the business then reverts to providing blunt solutions.

Turning to a leaders’ response to team and employee empathy; again, this needs to be acted upon in an appropriate and nuanced way. Bowen described how her understanding of her staff and team of volunteers has influenced her approach to introducing change within the organisation: “A lot of Clean Label Project’s work is advocacy-focused, but I need to ensure I am sensitive about how far we can push our advocacy work. I recognise that to bring people with me, this has to be through evolution not revolution – I a mindful that I need to transform one step at a time if I want outcomes to stick.”

Read the previous edition of 'The Talent Poole', where Jon Poole hears from Chris Kong, chief executive of Better Nature on entrepreneurial leadership.

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