Subscribe to our newsletter

Empathy In Early Years Leadership

June 10, 2021
7 minute read

As it’s Empathy Day I wanted to share my thoughts around empathy within leadership in the early years.  

Empathy tends to be one of those traits that most early years leaders have in abundance. The ability to truly understand and share someone else’s feelings or experiences, and to be able to imagine what it would be like to be in that person’s situation, is an attribute that we see over and over again in strong leaders.  

Of course, its important not to confuse empathy with sympathy! 

Empathy tends to be one of those traits that most early years leaders have in abundance. The ability to truly understand and share someone else’s feelings or experiences, and to be able to imagine what it would be like to be in that person’s situation is an attribute that we see over and over again in strong leaders.

Over the course of the pandemic, empathy is something which we have needed more and more of, as peoples lives, experiences and support needs changed from day to day.  As a leader, being able to put yourself in someone else’s shoes and respond in an empathetic manner is essential in building a trustful culture within your setting.  

So, how does empathy play its part in leadership and what is the relationship between the two? 

An early years staff team spend a lot of time together, working closely, leading to strong bonds being built. Early years practitioners have to collaborate in order to offer an outstanding service, and often the practitioners within a setting are friends as well as colleagues. We work hard and play hard, ensuring the children come first. Empathy is the glue that holds those relationships together, the cement that holds the bonds in place. This bond we see between our practitioners, should also be nurtured between the leader and their staff. Empathy between an early years leader and the practitioners they lead will not only help both adults grow in confidence and develop an understanding of each other, but is great for business too!  

Various research studies have been carried out to understand the role of empathy in business and the impact of empathy on productivity, team culture, and operations. According to these studies, empathy helps to improve marketing, increase sales and encourage better performance within staff teams.  This may be particularly true within the early years sector, as our work is people facing. Everything we do, from the initial tour to the celebrations of achievements, our motives are entrenched in empathy. When a new parent calls to book a tour and tells you how nervous they are for their child to attend nursery, we immediately empathise with them. When a child is struggling to settle and the parent is finding it difficult to leave their child, we empathise with them. When a member of staff needs some flexibility to care for a sick relative, we empathise with them.  All of this improves the way our settings are managed, how they grow, how the reputation develops and even our levels of staff turnover.  

Leading an early years setting isn’t something we do to people, its something we do with people, and empathy plays a huge part in it’s success. Throughout our careers, many of us will have come across leaders who lack empathy. The manager who can’t empathise when your child is in a production that you really want to be able to go and see, or that your grandmother is in hospital and visiting time doesn’t fit around your shift.  That’s not to say they don’t care, they are just unable to put themselves in your position or to see the situation from your perspective, they lack empathy. What’s more, there is also an argument that empathy is biased. Some research tells us that we may show more empathy to people we like, or even find attractive. Our personal experiences also play a part in how empathetic we can be, if weve not experienced the situation a colleague is in, we may find it difficult to put ourselves in their position.  

In my experience,  a leader in an early years setting that lacks empathy will struggle to build a culture that drives the success of the business. Just like children learn from the practitioners around them, the practitioners learn from those who lead them. Leaders who don’t show empathy to their staff teams are likely to find increased staff turnover, and reduced engagement in their workforce. In turn, this affects not only the organisational culture, but the overall profitability of the business. Conversely, leaders who demonstrate empathy will engage their team, build a great team culture, increase productivity, improve standards of service and improve staff turnover. Empathy rocks!  

It’s important to realise that empathy is not weakness, in fact it can be a real strength and an asset to your leadership team. Empathy is not sharing the suffering of others, it’s showing that you understand their position and can relate to their challenges.  By supporting your senior managers and leaders to use empathy and understand the needs and situations of others, the result will be a strong, caring and nurturing leadership team, that understands, cares for and wants the best for the team as a whole. This is the cornerstone to building a strong early years setting.  

Support from a leadership coach can be useful in developing empathy in leadership, and there are also things that you can do to weave a little more empathy into your leadership style: 

  1. Listen: We should always listen more than we talk. The only way you can truly empathise with someone is to fully understand their challenges, and you can only achieve this through active listening.  Simple phrases such as ‘tell me more about that’ or ‘tell me how that is impacting your work’ can encourage open dialogue, be sure to listen to the responses.  
  1. Champion: By championing your team, cheering them on and encouraging them to try new things, and step out of their comfort zone, they will grow in confidence and know that you will support them.
  1. Team player: As I mentioned earlier, leading in early years is something we do with people not to them, and leading from within your team demonstrates collaboration, togetherness and working in partnership.  
  1. Be genuine; It’s easy to spot from mile away when someone is humoring you rather than empathising. Be genuinely interested in the lives of your team, know what their challenges are and understand how these challenges impact their behaviour and support needs.  

Having an empathetic approach to your leadership can positively impact the lives of our practitioners and the culture of your team as a whole. Empathy can build confidence, demonstrate tolerance and understanding and nurture that organizational culture that we know is so important in an early years setting.  

For more information check out: Empathy Day 2021 | Empathy Lab 

linkedin facebook pinterest youtube rss twitter instagram facebook-blank rss-blank linkedin-blank pinterest youtube twitter instagram