Empathic Leadership Explained: Leading with Heart
“People respond in accordance to how you treat them.” — Nelson Mandela
For today’s leaders, the spotlight is on empathy like never before. In the present dynamic work landscape, characterised by diversity and unprecedented challenges, organisations are recognising the pivotal role empathy plays, not only in creating safer workspaces but also in achieving overall success. Empathic leadership skills are imperative for purpose-driven leaders.
From CEOs to front-line managers, empathy is no longer an optional ‘soft skill’ but a critical competency. Research is elevating empathy to an invaluable skill for effective leadership (Forbes, 2021).
This article provides a comprehensive understanding of what empathy is and what it is to lead with empathy, and examines the compelling case of “Empathic Leadership“.
What’s all the Hype about Empathy in the Workplace?
Earlier last year Disney surprised with an abrupt CEO change, rehiring Robert A. Iger a short year after leaving. This move was directly attributed to the perception that a ‘lack of empathy and emotional intelligence’ on his predecessor Bob Chapek’s part, had caused “irreparable damage to his ability to lead” (The New York Times, 2023).
This incident isn’t isolated but symbolises a broader trend towards an empathic leadership style in organisations, even traditional ones. Businesses are evolving to be more human-focused, shifting away from actions and mindsets entrenched in controlling people and moving towards empowering and influencing individuals through empathy, understanding, and respect.
If you want to move your culture towards more harmony and humanity, empathy is the crucial skill to master. Rest assured that the business outcomes empathy allows leaders to reach are not only about the work-life balance of employees. Highly empathetic senior leaders are more able to drive their business towards its goals and do so with more ease.
- Empathy is a critical skill we are all born with that helps us succeed socially. It develops over the lifetime and improves with practice.
- Demonstrating genuine empathy through active listening results in deep understanding of people’s emotions and experiences, and builds connection.
- There are 3 dimensions to empathy: to understand people’s emotions and thoughts, and to show care for them (i.e. to translate this understanding into action).
- Empathic leadership
- Leaders with empathy prioritise connections and inclusion of diverse perspectives.
- Empathetic leaders create a safe space where team members freely share ideas without fearing judgment.
- Empathic leadership results in enhanced engagement, productivity, innovation and positive organisational change.
- The results of becoming an empathic leader are short of miraculous- start honing the skill today with a few simple ideas!
The Essence of Empathic Leadership
Don’t be afraid to be a more empathic leader: Taking time to connect at a human level saves time and enhances productivity.
Many leaders are so focused on the “business” aspect that they overlook the fact that business is carried out by and revolves around people. To enhance business, a leader needs to know how their people tick, what they need, what motivates them and how to support them.
Empathy might be the most well-kept secret to success for senior leaders. It is easy to underestimate the power of human skills and of creating spaces where every team member feels valued and included.
What is Empathy?
Empathy is the capacity to grasp another person’s experience both intellectually and emotionally— i.e. to comprehend what they think and feel. It’s achieved through a process of imagination, often likened to picturing stepping into someone else’s shoes.
Empathy requires having the willingness to descend from your own mountain, with its familiar vistas, and momentarily climb the other person’s mountain to gain a different perspective and understand why they see and feel things the way they do, and to accept this experience.
Empathy doesn’t entail experiencing another person’s emotions (which is sympathy or pity). Rather, it involves open-mindedly grasping their viewpoints and emotional experiences. When you empathise, you neither agree nor disagree; you simply understand. You strive to “get” people without identifying with their views or experiences. Their perspectives and responses remain their own (and so do yours).
With high-calibre empathy, you are able to listen and empathise with anyone about anything and truly consider diverse perspectives. Even when people present the exact opposite point of view to yours or say things that challenge your values, you can do this openly, leaving them feeling really listened to. Clearly, achieving this level of empathy requires a high degree of mastery over your thoughts and emotions.
There is a third dimension to empathy beyond emotional and intellectual understanding- to show your concern. Empathy is not a purely cognitive or emotional endeavour. It is not sufficient to understand, this understanding needs to be translated into action.
People only believe you truly get them if you demonstrate your understanding by your words and by including their perspective and needs through your actions, such as in future decisions.
What is Empathic Leadership?
An empathetic leader has a way of being that sends calming, trusting signals through the day.
Empathic leadership, or empathic leadership, is a management style centred on understanding people’s opinions, feelings, and needs and creating an inclusive space where all team members feel acknowledged, respected and valued.
Becoming comfortable with people’s emotional responses and experiences is a necessity to show they matter as individuals to their leadership and to the organisation.
Empathic leaders build a caring culture with their daily shows of empathy, regard and care for everyone. They make space for people sharing their feelings and needs and show concern for their well-being.
They shed judgment and criticism and have learnt to offer honest feedback that enhances growth while leaving individuals feeling valued at the same time.
Empathic leaders create inclusive workplaces that prioritise people. They consider diverse perspectives and are able to include them and find mutually beneficial solutions. They embrace all points of view, distilling what is noncontroversial, while being agile in turning controversy into shared understanding and forward movement.
I consider empathy a leader’s superpower. Master empathy and you will better facilitate more harmonious and effective teamwork and positive outcomes.
Research Reveals the Benefits of Empathic Leadership
Conflicts are more easily resolved through empathy, ultimately fostering innovation and development.
Empathy is emerging as one of the most valued leadership traits by employees. In a recent Forbes article (Forbes 2023), Catalyst showcased their research findings from interviews with nearly 900 US employees across industries. Overall, the consensus was that empathic leadership is not only essential to employees’ well-being but also crucial for their willingness to contribute and remain committed to the organisation.
Some key outcomes that employees attributed to their more empathetic leaders:
- boosting engagement at work
- increasing innovation
- decreasing burnout
- enhancing employee retention
Less empathetic leaders were viewed as less respected and engendering distrust, even anxiety and fear. The way they treat people was perceived to discourage loyalty and retention.
In contrast, empathetic leaders were generally perceived as more flexible, more understanding of team members’ needs and life situations, valuing mental health and well-being, and fostering diversity and inclusion.
An empathic leader knows that solving problems is more easily achieved when they regularly make themselves available to their employees and support them to develop and find their own solutions. In turn, employees become more willing to be influenced and feel more motivated.
By forging stronger connections with team members, they are able to include more perspectives and prevent and handle conflict more effectively. No one is left behind, trust grows, and staff morale improves. This promotes more effective collaboration and innovation.
Characteristics of Empathetic Leadership
Empathic leaders engage in active listening with team members.
Empathetic leaders are not simply born. They have developed their capabilities over time. What makes these people so effective in leading teams are:
(1) self-awareness of their own and others’ emotions
(2) genuine concern and care for others, and
(3) exceptional ability to build relationships
High Emotional Intelligence
Empathetic leaders have acquired “emotional literacy”, which allows them to effectively understand and connect with the emotions of their team members and stakeholders. This allows them to create an environment that encourages people feeling at ease and confident that they will be listened to and taken into account.
The core of emotional intelligence involves first understanding your own emotions and needs. From this self-awareness, you can understand those of others.
If you want to control your behaviour and words, you first need to learn to know what you are feeling and how it affects your actions. Think how hard it is to have control of your communication when you are really upset and cannot bring yourself back to balance.
A leader who shows concern and care for people’s needs and how they manifest in each individual, is golden. Care is demonstrated in open and honest conversations that respect what is being shared without judgment.
Focus on 3 core needs of your employees:
- show that they personally matter (e.g. what is happening in their personal lives),
- acknowledge and appreciate their contributions to the team and organisation
- give them a balance of autonomy and support to develop.
Strong Relationship-Building Skills
Positive emotions and a sense of connectedness enhance collaboration.
Empathy significantly enhances a leader’s ability to build strong relationships. Empathy enables you to offer understanding instead of judgment when discussing matters. It involves demonstrating a genuine interest in understanding different perspectives and the emotions associated with the topics discussed.
Empathy fosters a sense of trust among team members by acknowledging and respecting their unique perspectives and feelings. This trust forms the foundation of strong relationships, as team members feel secure in expressing their thoughts and concerns.
A culture of empathy develops, strengthening relationships with authentic support from management and generating an overall sense of consideration and inclusion on all sides. This encourages team members to share their ideas and challenges without fear of criticism, fostering deeper connections and a more collaborative atmosphere.
4 Strategies for Developing Empathic Leadership Skills
Developing empathy for leaders is an ongoing journey. The empathetic leader is one who shows genuine interest in others. A really good place to start is by connecting gradually and naturally, especially if you haven’t focused on empathy before. Make space for authentic conversations, listen, show you understand and keep working on your viewpoints that take away from believing in people.
1. Practice Active Listening
Listening to understand people takes many forms but always connects.
Active listening is the core skill for effective leaders. High quality listening requires being fully present so that you can give your complete attention. And, yet, the stillness and silence it requires is a really active process.
In essence, let yourself feel a sincere curiosity in the speaker’s perspective until you understand what is important to them (their needs). Detect nonverbal expressions or feelings present. This is also information that will help you adequately respond and address any needs or concerns they have.
Maintain eye contact, refrain from interjections, cultivating openness towards any ideas. While open ended or clarifying questions can be supportive occasionally, avoid interrogating. In reality, you are mostly quiet, listening. It should look like they have the mic (and you the headphones).
I often say it takes a short time to listen. In the end saves time because it decreases misunderstandings and helps people feel more connected. You can get started by reading my article The Complete Guide to Nonviolent Communication for Purpose-Driven Leaders.
2. Demonstrate Your Deeper Understanding: Show, Don’t Tell
Show people what you got from what they said.
Showing people you understand goes a long way in creating connection. Avoid catch-all phrases such as “I understand,” or “I get you.” Instead, express in your own words what you understand matters to the person in front of you, or the gist of what they shared, as though you were holding up a mirror.
Sharing what you gathered (while holding back your interpretations) gives people a strong sense that you respect, appreciate and understand them. They get the subliminal powerful message that they matter because they see you investing time in getting to grips with their perspective and how they feel.
3. Become more aware of your perceptions
How you see people affects how you treat them and what you believe about them.
How you see people permeates your verbal and nonverbal communication. To be truly empathic, you need to learn to see and accept people in the wholeness of their humanity.
Sometimes people are happy and satisfied, at other times, they feel insecure or overwhelmed.
How people feel affects how they act and their performance. So, staying with them and attempting to understand their human experience (even when it is not comfortable) can lead to helping them regulate their emotions. Emotional regulation has the immediate benefit of mental clarity, so you help them get on with their work better.
4. Learn to seek and include all perspectives
Today’s highly diverse and global work environments require leaders to be adept at understanding and accepting differences.
Honing the skill of empathic listening allows you to embrace diverse viewpoints, distil information that supports shared goals, and express concern and regard for everyone involved. This, in turn, ensures that every team member feels appreciated, irrespective of the initial disparity in their points of view.
By actively including dissenting voices, you empower your team to make decisions that more accurately reflect the collective wisdom within the group. The incorporation of different points of view becomes a powerful catalyst for creativity. Broadening the team’s outlook helps generate multiple options for finding innovative solutions.
The trust cultivated through a deeper understanding of team members fosters an environment where individuals feel comfortable to share openly, overcoming potential power dynamics that might inhibit communication.
Empathic leadership is really important in today’s workplace, and it derives in positive outcomes for organisations. By taking care of people, you uphold business.
Empathetic leaders possess high awareness of their own and others’ emotions, needs and perspectives, and show genuine concern for others. Undeniably, when managers lead with empathy, it fosters an atmosphere of respect, positivity and inclusivity that encourages higher levels of employee engagement and boosts results.
Leaders develop empathy through practicing active listening, seeking out different views points, and holding back on judgment. Empathic leadership positively impacts the culture, with increases in trust and honesty. A genuine concern for their team and a greater understanding of team members leads to increased employee engagement, which drives organisational success.
Empathy can become an invaluable skill in your leadership toolbox. A empathic leadership style can help you counter the negative effects of the fast-paced, stressful and ever changing work environment, leading to a more humane and effective way to lead.
Forbes 2023: Why Leading With Empathy Is More Important Than Ever, Alain Hunkins.
Forbes 2021: Empathy Is The Most Important Leadership Skill According To Research, Tracy Brower.