How to Be a More Empathic Leader with Markus van Alphen

How to Become a More Empathic Leader with Markus van Alphen

In this week’s episode of The Leadership Habit podcast, Jenn DeWall talks to leadership psychologist Markus van Alphen about becoming a more empathic leader. Jenn and Markus dive into the importance of understanding emotions in yourself and others to be a better leader and how we can all become better at noticing emotions to improve communication, productivity and employee engagement. 

Meet Markus van Alphen, Renowned Leadership Psychologist and Author

Markus van Alphen is a renowned leadership psychologist and author of more than 15 books in Dutch and English. He developed the Observational Listening concept in 2014.  Observational Listening is actively listening to what an individual has to say, observing them, and understanding their emotional state. When leaders are attentive to the story and the underlying emotions, the employee feels heard, seen, acknowledged and psychologically safe, resulting in increased happiness, motivation, and success.

Markus helps leaders and individuals worldwide increase workplace and personal relationship effectiveness, transform their environments, and succeed. Markus is also a trainer, lecturer, and curriculum developer for undergraduate and postgraduate psychology and counseling students at colleges and universities across the Netherlands.

Interestingly, Markus began his career as an engineer for utility providers and software companies. After a decade in the field, he realized the impact our individual characteristics and interpersonal interactions have on our work and lives, which led him to pursue psychology.

 He holds a master’s degree in psychology from the University of Amsterdam and a degree in Electrical and Electronic Engineering that he received from the University of Cape Town.

What People Get Wrong about Empathic Leadership

As the episode opens, Jenn asks Markus to explain what empathic leadership is and dispel the myths about empathy in the workplace. 

Markus explains, “Well, I think we have a lot of myths going around here as well. A lot of people have this idea if you’re an empathic leader, then it’s all huggy and cuddly, being nice to one another. Not saying nasty things, not confronting people. No, it’s not that. It’s not that. 

So to me, empathic leadership is actually about really knowing who your team members are and really understanding them, understanding where they’re coming from. And, in a way, this is the simplest way to motivate people. 

Well, I should correct myself straight away because I don’t believe you need to motivate people. I believe that if you’re empathic, people are motivated by themselves, they’re actually motivated already. So it’s more just a matter of aligning with what they need in such a way that they do what they want to do.”

Jenn asks why leaders have difficulty understanding the importance of leading with empathy, and Markus tells her it has a lot to do with the myths we have about leadership in general. He points out that research has shown that punishing people is the least effective way to change people’s behavior since 1820, and people have done almost nothing with that knowledge. 

He says, “So, when we have a myth, and we are brought up with all of these myths, let’s be honest. And I’m not saying it’s good or bad, I’m just saying we are brought up with all these myths that certain things are the right way to do stuff. And any information we get that counts as that idea we don’t like, we find ways to sort of push it into a corner or ignore it or go on the defense of whatever. 

And I think it’s the same with empathy. It’s the same. It actually begins with emotions. Emotions, for a long time in our society, have sort of been bad things, you know, and sort of a bit of a side product of the way we think. Whereas that’s not true, if you think about, and, and pushing that myth further, then we go, we go into the organization, get to the workplace. And you hear still today, a lot of people saying, we don’t have emotions in the workplace. It’s rational stuff. 

And I just shake my head. I think, how do you expect people to work to be without there being emotions, without emotions? You’re simply not alive. You’re a robot. So I think that’s where this myth comes from. You know, people have these convictions about emotions being strange stuff and that in the workplace, we’re rational and stuff like that. And we don’t want to hear different.”

How Observational Listening Can Improve Your Leadership Style

Later in the episode, Jenn and Markus discuss the role of effective communication in empathic leadership. Markus shares his experience teaching therapists how to communicate with clients. He noticed some clients were able to open up freely and discuss emotions easily, while others were more guarded and uncomfortable. As a psychologist, he became interested in how to help clients feel safe and able to share more easily. 

Markus explains that observational listening can greatly improve a leader’s ability to understand an employee’s emotions and point of view. His technique adds another layer to active listening, which is to intentionally notice clues about the person’s emotional state. He discusses the importance of noticing body language, facial expressions and vocal tone to create a deeper understanding of the other person. 

Then, Jenn shares a time when she got another person’s body language very wrong and asks Markus how to handle that kind of mistake. 

Markus explains, “Okay. But again, the question is – is it a failure? Because can you accurately name everybody’s emotions perfectly straight away? I don’t believe that’s possible. I think that’s setting yourself up for failure. 

So, empathy is not about being a hundred percent accurate. What empathy is about is getting a good feel as to what that emotion is. And if you get it wrong, which can happen, and you say something that implies that you got it wrong, you are gonna notice straight away by the reaction that you got it wrong. 

And is that a bad thing? No, it’s not a bad thing. You can say, I’m sorry, I got that wrong. We should be vulnerable. We should allow ourselves to be vulnerable and say, Hey, I made a mistake. I saw that incorrectly, or I got that wrong. Doesn’t matter. That gives actually the other one you’re speaking to the space or more space to feel safe. You’re saying I’m human.”

The Importance of Self-Awareness in Leadership

Later in the conversation, Jenn and Markus discuss the importance of being aware of your own emotions as leaders. In the past, leaders have been told to leave their emotions at the door, but the truth is that is not humanly possible. 

Markus explains, “Well, this is a very important part also of emotional intelligence, because emotional intelligence is about your own emotions and the emotions of others. Yeah. And being able to understand them and to read them and all these kinds of things. So when it comes to your own emotions, I believe we’ve sort of, as a society, we’ve distanced ourselves from our bodies. We have this idea that we know better than what our own bodies tell us. Whereas, you know, our bodies, they, they have, that’s called it billions of years of evolution behind them, that they, they have some kind of wisdom. They often know better than we do. And this is where, as far as I’m concerned, the journey begins. Start by feeding your emotions in your body, right? By discovering, hey, uh, where do I feel things?

A lot of people, for example, when they’re feeling tension or anxiety, feel it for the first in their gut. And so being aware of your body helps you to become aware of your emotions. And, it’s not so that there’s a standard place for everything. I was discovering this by myself as well. I mean, because I’m also human, so I always get tensions and stuff like that. And I was trying to find out, okay, so find, where’s the first signal I can discover that I’m feeling tense about something, and after spending some time this, I found out it was my right hamstring. 

Why? I don’t know. But when my right hamstring starts tensing up just a little bit, I know, okay, I’m feeling tension. And that gives me the space to actually accept that tension instead of fighting it. I’m giving this as a simple example. And so, so just starting with your body, being aware of what, what that emotion’s doing inside of your body often is the first step to becoming aware.”

Where to Find More from Markus van Alphen

Listen to the full episode to learn more about how to be a more empathetic leader. Markus van Alphen has a lot of insights to share! If you want to find out more about him, check out these links as well: