Making Empathy a Natural Part of Healthcare Leadership

Organizations succeed when they value others’ experiences

empathy in healthcare

As a former member of the military, Colleen Carroll knows what it’s like to work within a culture that does not especially prioritize people’s feelings. That’s how she was trained, and she understands when other professionals feel resistant about adding empathy to their toolkit.

“It can be hard for some people to make that transition,” she says. “They say, ‘Why do I have to show empathy? I worked hard to make it to where I am, and nobody showed me empathy along the way.’”

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But as Cleveland Clinic’s Director of Learning Strategy and Design, Carroll also knows that empathy can make an enormous positive impact -‑ not just on patient experience, but on organizational success.

“Workplace culture is really important, especially at a time when people are switching jobs, and it is generally harder to retain your workforce,” says Carroll. “When you look at what’s important in a culture to maintain talent and to have engaged employees, empathy is a key pillar. Your leaders drive culture, culture drives people, and people are what drive the business.”

That’s why Carroll created a learning module entirely focused on empathy as part of a recent executive education training series for a group of leaders from both inside and outside Cleveland Clinic. Developed by Cleveland Clinic Global Executive Education in collaboration with Korn Ferry, an international business consulting firm, the program was designed to accelerate leadership capacity for healthcare leaders and physicians.

Carroll was among Cleveland Clinic experts who led sessions aimed at developing communication and listening skills, building trust, mentoring and coaching others, and navigating change. She teaches about empathy because it is a quality that matters in healthcare, both inside and outside clinical settings.

To prove the point, she asks executives to think back on leaders they have known and admired, and consider their characteristics. “People tend to say ‘They were good listeners,’ or ‘They gave me support when I needed it,’ or ‘They were honest and I could trust them,’” Carroll says. “When you boil all those things down, you find that memorable leaders are those who are able to connect and show empathy to the people they lead. It’s a foundational thing that we don’t often think about, especially in the business world.”

Using your own experience as a learning tool

For healthcare leaders hoping to expand their empathy skills, it can be useful to think about their own experiences as a patient or accompanying a loved one to a medical visit.

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“You want to get to what that felt like,” Carroll says. “What were some of the emotions that came up? What did you appreciate about the experience? What would you have wanted to see, hear or feel that maybe you didn’t? When we bring this topic up, people tend to talk about how the provider spoke to them, how they entered the room, or whether they asked how their day was. What comes out of the conversation is how important empathy is to the overall experience. The discussion is seldom about the actual medical skill of the provider, it’s about their willingness to connect and show empathy.”

Healthcare professionals may automatically understand the need for empathy in patient relationships, but the goal should be to embed that quality throughout the organization.

Medicine is famous for tough, even grueling, training programs that reward performance and perseverance. For some leaders, it can be hard to introduce empathy into the mix with their teams, Carroll says, and they might wonder why they should put in the effort.

The answer? Because it’s effective.

But the skills that make a good surgeon don’t automatically make someone an effective leader. Carroll points to a premise explored in the book What Got You Here Won’t Get You There by Marshall Goldsmith and Mark Reiter: the need to evolve for each new phase in one’s career.

“The book actually uses physicians and healthcare leaders as examples,” Carroll says. “As a group, they tend to be people who learned that if they studied hard and followed the rules, they would get ahead. But when they start to move into leadership roles or start to lead big organizations, they have to develop different skills. If we want to continue to advance, what we did before is not going to be the same thing that makes us successful down the line.”

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Even those who understand, in theory, how empathy can help them as leaders may resist it in practice because they are concerned it will require too much effort, Carroll says.

“People think, ‘I don’t have time to be like that with everyone I work with all the time,’ or ‘I can’t agree with everyone.’ They worry that it requires them to have no boundaries,” Carroll says.

Forging better, empathetic relationships with the team is not about forfeiting boundaries of time or space. It’s about being attentive in the moment, Carroll says.

“It’s really just about focusing on mutual respect, developing interest in others’ perspectives, making meaningful connections, and forging a shared commitment,” she says. “One of the most important things is just to be able to say to someone, ‘I care that you are having a good experience,’ or ‘I care that you might be going through something right now. What can I do to help?’”

To learn more, visit Cleveland Clinic’s Global Executive Education program online.