Why empathetic leadership is so effective and how to use it…

“If we hope to meet the moral test of our times, then I think we’re going to have to talk more about The Empathy Deficit. The ability to put ourselves in somebody else’s shoes, to see the world through somebody else’s eyes…” -  Barack Obama

‘The real job of a leader,’ says Simon Sinek, ‘is not about being in charge, it’s about taking care of the people in our charge.’ Nothing shows this more than the appreciation for empathetic leadership during the Covid-19 pandemic. No matter what part of the world or which industry they worked in, successful leaders had one quality in common – connecting and caring for their people. They were with us, not above us. They showed us that they were human too. They were empathetic.

But empathy is not just for crises. Reports show that as organisations battle with what is fast becoming a mass resignation in a post-pandemic world, there is one key reason why people are choosing to stay in their workplace, and that’s the compassionate approach of their leaders. In a recent Paychex survey of 1,000 American employees, over 50% said that team leaders don’t acknowledge stress or burnout, with only 44% encouraging honest discussions about work frustrations. As Forbes point out, this is a huge part of why 52% of U.S. employees are considering a job move in 2021.

So, what learnings about empathetic leadership can we take with us into the new world of work?  Why is empathy so powerful and, as leaders, how can we use it to inspire, connect and retain teams at a time it’s needed most?


What is empathy?

First, we need to look at what empathy really means. At a basic level, empathy is the ability to connect to another human being – using emotional sensitivity to see the world through their eyes and genuinely feel what they’re feeling. Often confused with sympathy – as Dr Brené Brown points out in her famous Ted Talk ‘The power of vulnerability’ – it’s important to differentiate them, as one connects and the other divides. Sympathy looks down from above; setting a distance between you and the person you are being sympathetic to (‘oh dear that sounds terrible – poor you!’). Whereas empathy asks, ‘how are you feeling?’ without judgement. Empathy is not about problem solving or giving unwarranted advice. Nor is it about sugar-coating; sweeping somebody’s problems under the carpet through positive indifference – ‘at least you have a job!’, ‘everything will be fine!’ Sympathy sets you at a level above another person, whereas empathy climbs down to sit beside you.

This can be extra tricky for leaders because, within traditional, hierarchical structures, they are set at a level ‘above.’ But being a truly empathetic leader sometimes means not being a manager or a director or a CEO for a moment. To genuinely walk a mile in someone else’s shoes (or ‘Moccasins’ as the original, 1895 Native American quote where the term was coined), you have to kick off your high status, ‘I’m the one in charge’ shoes; connect at an authentic level and see the world – really see it – through your team member’s eyes.


Why empathetic leadership works…

A soft skill or nice to have - empathy, like many other personal development skills linked to EQ (emotional intelligence), is still not always considered to be a key performance indicator by some organisations. When a task is urgent there’s no time to think about something as fluffy as empathy right? Wrong. The truth is there’s no time not to. The more urgent the needs of your business, the more critical it is to check in with your people. The word ‘soft’ is also misleading. As the Prime Minister of New Zealand Jacinda Ardern said (and demonstrated) during the pandemic, ‘leaders can be both empathetic and strong.’ In fact, empathy is strength. To be vulnerable takes bravery. To be calm and compassionate while the world crumbles around you takes incredible resolve. And it works. From reviewing 6,731 managers in 38 countries, the Center for Creative Leadership saw a direct link to managers’ job performance – with the leaders who were viewed as the most compassionate by their co-workers, also rated the most high performing by their bosses.

In practice, a successful leader utilises what is known as cognitive (or constructive) empathy to cultivate psychological safety in the workplace: the creation of an environment which feels ‘safe’ enough for team members to speak up, question, or challenge the way things are done, without fear. This is all the more important when we consider the importance of diversity of thought: empowering people to bring their true self – and their ideas – to work. Insights concluded that diverse teams are able to solve problems faster than teams of cognitively similar people; with inclusive teams making better decisions up to 87% of the time. In order for this diversity to work, however, leaders must use the power of empathy to create an environment that is inclusive and genuinely open to different perspectives and voices.

Destructive, or ‘emotional’ empathy on the other hand, as pointed out here, is not always helpful. While effective for personal relationships, in the workplace, when leaders are too directly involved with the emotions of a team member, they can become overwhelmed – leading to ‘empathy distress’ and in some cases, burnout. Empathy is also not free from bias, with neuroscientists pointing out that many of us will subconsciously feel for people who are most like us without even realising. Keeping a sense of perspective is therefore crucial to empathy’s success in the workplace – seeking to understand every point of view, without becoming attached or overwhelmed.


How to practice empathy as a leader


“Empathy is being concerned about the human being, rather than their output.” -  Simon Sinek

So, how do leaders use empathy in a constructive, rather than a destructive, way? The development of cognitive empathy is not a tick box exercise or a language that can be learned like business speak. Empathy needs to be practised; a muscle that builds, flexes and at times, fails - in order to grow and develop. As Simon Sinek points out in his talk ‘Empathy’, the reason we get so many managers and not leaders, is that promotions are so often based on aptitude for a particular skill, rather than their aptitude for people managing. And despite having years of training in the former, they’ll go on to have no training at all in the latter; despite it being the single most essential skill they’ll need.


While there are no quick wins, here are some top tips for dialling up empathy as a leader:

  1. Listen. Don’t assume. Don’t judge. Don’t project. It may sound simple, but it’s not easy. As humans we are wired to talk, and as leaders we are wired to problem solve; but resist the urge to put your – or anyone else’s – perspective onto a team member’s experience. Show them that you hear them, you see them, and most importantly, you understand them.
  2. Be psychologically safe. Of course, without a psychologically safe environment, team members won’t feel confident enough to speak up in the first place. If team members are not coming to you with their problems or opinions, it’s not a good sign. But if you a) stay available – prioritise meetings with your people, b) be open to dialogue – create an environment where people can share ideas, c) recognise and appreciate people’s individual strengths and d) give regular feedback (and not just in a yearly appraisal), then your team will feel safe, supported, and connected; enabling empathy to work its magic.
  3. Be brave. Vulnerability isn’t just for team members. In order to connect, you need to lean into your own emotions and be authentic and honest, which takes courage. Let go of the image that a leader has to be super-human and that you have to pretend everything is okay. As the title of Kat Cole’s new course on LinkedIn demonstrates – ‘Leading with a Heavy Heart’ – it’s the leaders who are open, and who balance optimism with a healthy dose of realism, who connect the most with their colleagues, especially during times of crisis.
  4. Use the power of awareness. How aware are you about how you come across as a leader? Despite what you may think, there is often a gap between how a leader thinks they come across and how they actually appear to their teams. Do you feel that you’re open and tolerant, but find your team members aren’t honest with you? Do you feel that you care for your people, but have a high turnover? At Insights, we know just how important self-awareness is to successful leadership; using personal profiling to give leaders the tools and insight they need to identify key strengths and blind spots; while helping them dial up their empathy for others. Stay aware of your behaviours. How did you show up today? Did you listen to that team member’s problems or did you judge? Did you take that very difficult thing to hear or that wild, out-of-the-box idea on board, or did you dismiss it? Did you have time to check in on that team member whose performance has been declining, or did you run out of time?


If the answer is no and you didn’t manage to do those things, be empathetic towards yourself. Treat yourself with the same compassion as one of your team members. The best thing about awareness is being able to keep on learning and reviewing – to see what went well and what you can improve upon. There’s always tomorrow to try again, learn again, and keep on stretching that empathy muscle until you can take on multiple points of view and juggle different team members’ feelings with ease.

Being a leader isn’t easy. As Sinek says, it’s a huge, personal sacrifice. And, contrary to traditional images of ‘tough’ leadership – the kind of authoritarian figure that wiggles their finger at stressed employees wiping the sweat from their brow – not being empathetic is actually not ‘tough’ at all. It’s the easy way out. Leaning in to your emotions, showing your vulnerability, taking time to listen, embracing a new point of view, being genuinely compassionate to each and every team member – this all takes time, patience, courage and stamina. But unlike the many projects or business wins you’ll tick off throughout your career; it’s the people you’re able to have an impact on – and learn from – that really count.

Insights has been developing leaders for almost 30 years by focusing on each leader’s self-awareness, emotional intelligence and relationship-building skills. Our development programmes help leaders first lead themselves, so they can better control how they show up to others. Our latest leadership intervention, the Self-Aware Leader – helps leaders develop the skills and mindset necessary for empathetic leadership and is ideally suited for teams of leaders learning together. Visit our website for more information about our approach to leadership development.


Do’s and don’t’s for having an empathetic conversation:

  • Do reach out. Ask ‘how are you feeling?’ ‘Is everything okay?’ – but do it with intent and genuine interest, and without assuming you know the answer! It’s amazing how little we can truly understand what someone else is going through until we hear it directly from them.
  • Don’t say ‘at least’. – ‘at least you have a job,’ ‘at least you got the project done on time.’ While it may seem uplifting and sympathetic, it actually belittles and invalidates the person’s feelings.
  • Do listen – and that means really listening. No interruptions, no quick glances at your phone or multitasking. Resist the urge to listen for what you think you already know, or to react in any way.
  • Don’t be overly positive. If they’re upset about something, sugar-coating with positive mantras isn’t helpful. Show them that you understand why something is hard, rather than trying to pretend that it isn’t.
  • Do go deep. This is a chance to genuinely connect with them as a human being. This is not the right time for small talk, business speak, company values or performance ratings. If they open up in an honest and vulnerable way, this shows you are providing a psychologically safe space for them to do so and is a chance to connect.
  • Don’t go into problem solving mode. This is not the time to ‘fix’ a situation. They are not looking for answers, they just need to be seen and heard.
  • Do use emotional empathy. Use the power of imagination to walk in their shoes and genuinely see it from their perspective. But stay aware of your own projections and biases while doing so.
  • Don’t ask why. ‘How did it get to this’ or ‘who’s to blame?’ Playing Poirot to investigate all the reasons why they might be feeling like this does not help. Stay out of judgement – both of them, and anyone else in the company. Blame is never useful; and it actually kills a psychologically safe environment.
  • Don’t go into sympathy mode – ‘poor you!’ ‘oh no, that’s terrible!’ While so often well intentioned, it will only wind up making them feel worse - putting you in a position of superiority and making them feel small. A good phrase to use instead is ‘Help me understand…’
  • Do share something positive about them and their work. This shows how much you value them and helps focus on what they have been able to achieve, despite whatever else may be getting them down.
  • Don’t be defensive. Seeing something from someone else’s point of view, when you are responsible for them and their wellbeing, is not always easy to hear. But it’s not about you. If someone is feeling a certain way, it’s not a reflection on you or your leadership. It’s just how it feels to be them, and it makes a huge difference for them to be able to express that.
  • Do be authentic. While it can be hard to lean into honest, emotionally driven conversations; it’s the most instinctive, natural thing in the world. It’s what makes us human. So just be yourself, be natural and authentic, and connection is easy!