Imagine you could have a skill where–in any given conversation with colleagues, clients, or subordinates–you could be keenly aware of, and even experience, their feelings and thoughts.

Sounds like some X-Men-like psychic superpower right? Well, what if I told you that anyone can have this uncanny ability and use its strength and charm to have successful conversations?

Well, you can. The superpower I refer to is called empathy.

But this skill–and it is a learned skill available to anyone–is often misunderstood because there are variations of it. I’ll get to the science of it shortly.

How Do You Define Empathy?

To better grasp what people mean when they talk about empathy, the most common uses for empathy fall in these categories:

1. The type of empathy where we directly feel what others feel.

2. The type of empathy where you imagine yourself in others’ shoes.

3. The type of empathy where you imagine the world, or a situation, from someone else’s point of view rather than your own.

4. The type of empathy that researchers sometimes call “mind reading.” It involves being good at reading others’ emotions and body language.

Where do you fit in?

The Research Behind This Superpower

If you’re skeptical that this is touchy-feely campfire nonsense with no business value in a transactional world, consider the research.

Global training giant Development Dimensions International (DDI) has studied leadership for 46 years. They believe that the essence of optimal leadership can be boiled down to having dozens of “fruitful conversations” with others, inside and outside your organization.

Expanding on this belief, they assessed over 15,000 leaders from more than 300 organizations across 20 industries and 18 countries to determine which conversational skills have the highest impact on overall performance.

The findings, published in their High Resolution Leadership report, are revealing. While skills such as “encouraging involvement of others” and “recognizing accomplishments” are important, empathy--yes, empathy–rose to the top as the most critical driver of overall performance.

Specifically, the ability to listen and respond with empathy (see graph below).

Ray Krznaric, author of Empathy: Why It Matters, and How to Get It, sums it up nicely:

Empathy in the modern workplace is not just about being able to see things from another perspective. It’s the cornerstone of teamwork, good innovative design, and smart leadership. It’s about helping others feel heard and understood.

This whole premise does have an air of genius about it, considering that when you take on the perspective of those you are talking with, it engages people on the spot. This can be a difference maker. That’s the good news.

The Bad News

The DDI report reveals a dire need for leaders with the skill of empathy. Only four out of 10 frontline leaders assessed in their massive study were proficient or strong on empathy.

Richard S. Wellins, senior vice president of DDI and one of the authors of the High-Resolution Leadership report, had this to say in a Forbes interview a year ago:

We feel [empathy] is in serious decline. More concerning, a study of college students by University of Michigan researchers showed a 34 percent to 48 percent decline in empathic skills over an eight-year period. These students are our future leaders!

We feel there are two reasons that account for this decline. Organizations have heaped more and more on the plates of leaders, forcing them to limit face-to-face conversations. Again, DDI research revealed that leaders spend more time managing than they do “interacting.” They wish they could double their time spent interacting with others. The second reason falls squarely on the shoulders of technology, especially mobile smart devices. These devices have become the de rigueur for human interactions. Sherry Turkle, in her book, Reclaiming Conversation, calls them “sips of conversations.”

Final Thoughts

Keep in mind that empathy shows up in different ways, as I mentioned at the beginning. It’s not just “feeling.” Think how it can translate to both verbal and non-verbal behavior so the person hearing you will feel your empathic nature. And, it goes without saying, people see right through you if your empathy is not expressed in a sincere and authentic way.

Don’t underestimate for a second its true potential. Begin developing leaders to learn this relational skill for competitive advantage.

Your ability to empathize, as a leader, will make a difference in the performance of others. And it is critical to good teamwork.