Empathetic Leadership: The Importance of Empathy

by Gerald Fisher 28 December 2022

Leading is tough, right? You wanted all this responsibility, now do it!

To be an effective leader, results are obviously the sharp edge, but getting there … well, what would life be if it wasn’t full of adventure? There is no single formula for being a good manager, other than trying every day to be the human you aspire to be. 

But, still, leading and managing can be a thicket. Working out how to motivate individuals while building and maintaining team cohesion so that you get the desired results and meet or exceed goals is more of a puzzle than a straight line.

Empathy and its associated benefits may be the single most important leadership skill.

What is Empathetic Leadership? 

Empathetic leadership is critical to leveraging organisational success, and it is always worth it to try to be better at it. Here are some things to think about on your empathetic leadership journey:

  • Understand the realities of our current situation
  • Don’t micromanage
  • Recognise failure, evaluate appropriately and respond
  • Give clear instructions and trust your people to see them through
  • It all starts at the top
  • Are empathetic leaders born or made?

As you are considering these things, also consider how leading with empathy can transform you into a better leader.

“Getting better at my job changed my brain. It’s a lab where I found my voice and asked and answered questions about who I was. How do I want to sound in this email? What do I do when things get hard? Who am I, really? Work is one of the places I’ve grown up, and grown into myself,” says Andy Anderegg, half of a team that writes The Bent, an excellent newsletter about managing.

Understanding the Current Reality

Since the beginning of the pandemic, mental health – both for yourself and your team members – has taken on new contours. Grasping this is key. 

“Social isolation, employment uncertainty, and the virus itself have combined to shock the health and wellbeing of employees around the world. And while leaders are rightly focused on the physical effects of the COVID-19 pandemic, there’s another global challenge emerging: mental health,” according to an employee experience survey of 2,000 employees, including Australians, carried out by Qualtrics.com.

The Qualtrics survey found that since the beginning of 2020, two out of five respondents said they had experienced a decline in mental health, and the number of people who rated the quality of their mental health as poor doubled. Two-thirds of people said they experienced increases in stress, and over half reported increases in anxiety, sadness, and emotional exhaustion. People also reported feelings of isolation, irritability, and trouble with focus and completing tasks.

To be clear, this represents a snapshot in the months at the outset of the pandemic during an acutely disorienting and frightening time. Nonetheless, I recall for many months spending some days in a daze, and clenching my jaw in my sleep night after night, not knowing what was to come. Sound familiar? 

And though it may seem, three years later, as though we are coming through the other side of Covid-19, it is not completely behind us – it’s more like we have adjusted to it. The psychic effects are likely to linger for years to come, and will undoubtedly manifest themselves in all kinds of interesting ways. Doubling down on your empathy quotient, as individuals as well as organisations, seems smart.

So, to boil it down, being an empathetic leader starts with checking in on your own mental health, which includes recognising that the act of empathy toward others can lead to personal exhaustion.

3 Ways You Can Improve Your Empathetic Leadership Skills

Resist the Urge to Micromanage

Here’s Andy’s newsletter partner Emma: “It happens. All we’re doing when we micromanage is attempting to prevent failure. In both of these scenarios, the managers don’t trust their teammates to prevent it on their own. They’re swooping into body-block any impending doom — frustrated coworkers, underwhelmed clients, demerits from higher-ups, and maybe, simply an outcome that’s different than if they’d done it on their own.”

Failure is an Option

The corresponding part of resisting the urge to micromanage is trusting your people and letting them fail. Before you can recognise failure, you must grant yourself, and others, permission to fail. So, actually, you should be actively encouraging failure, because if you’re not failing, you’re not risking anything. If you’re not risking anything, you’re not taking the lesson. You’re not growing, developing, and changing, so your workplace just gets stuck in a place of stagnation.

And here’s a key to both of these things: create a workplace atmosphere that feels safe, where people want to come to work and engage in cooperative behaviour.

According to a study published in Evolutionary Biology, when empathy is introduced into decision making, it increases cooperation and even causes people to be more empathetic. Empathy produces more empathy.

An empathetic workplace leads to employees who feel safe and taken care of within their organisation, and therefore feel a sense of trust and belonging within their team. All these qualities are fundamental in order to achieve a highly effective, motivated, and productive company.”

It Starts at the Top

Look, it all starts with you. You have to be approachable. You have to make sure your employees feel supported. You have to discover ways to help others be their best selves. If you are putting your empathy on display, genuinely listening, involving others in decision-making processes, being open to criticism as well as to new ideas, then you are setting the example you want others to follow. 

All of this means that you also have to be honest, which can be difficult (no one ever said this would be easy). Here is what Alison Green, creator of Ask a Manager, has to say about it:

“In fact, I’d argue that in order to be a good, supportive manager to someone (with or without mental health struggles), you have to give honest and direct feedback. Otherwise, you’re setting them up to struggle in their role and to not know why they’re not getting the assignments, raises, or recognition they might want. You’re also setting them up to potentially lose their job at some point if the problems become serious enough, without having had the opportunity to fix the problems (ideally) or, failing that, having had clear warning that things aren’t working out so they’re not blindsided when it happens.

You should be kind when you do that, of course! You should have compassion and empathy, and you should speak to people with respect even when the message you’re delivering is a hard one. And you should care about your employees as people, and support them in all the things we need as humans — whether it’s time off or some grace when we mess up.

But you can hold the bar high, as long as you’re clear and fair about your expectations and coach people along the way. In fact, being kind can make it easier to hold a high bar, in that when you do need to give critical feedback, you ideally have a foundation where people trust you to look out for their interests along with the team’s.”

High levels of motivation through communication and support lead to teams that a highly self-aware, and who address and solve problems together. 

So what is an empathetic leader? An empathetic leader takes a genuine interest in their team-members lives, their daily professional and personal challenges, and their overall health and wellbeing. An empathetic leader helps others feel safe and looked after. An empathetic leader fosters an environment of mutual trust.

Nature or Nurture?

Well, both. There is lots of evidence that empathy is inherited, and it is on a spectrum – it comes more naturally to some than to others. 

“In a study by Lund University, children as young as two demonstrated an appreciation that others hold different perspectives than their own. And research at the University of Virginia found when people saw their friends experiencing threats, they experienced activity in the same part of their brain which was affected when they were personally threatened. People felt for their friends and teammates as deeply as they felt for themselves. All of this makes empathy an important part of our human condition—at work and in our personal lives.”

Empathy is also a practised skill, and like any other skill, repetition and muscle memory help you get better at it. Your endeavour to lead an organisation that functions with high levels of empathy can create a positive cascade effect, engaging in its own kind of amplification and continuous reinforcement. Likewise, if you don’t practice empathy the skill will atrophy, personally and organisationally.

Leading with empathy is not only about being a good, caring boss at the head of an ethical, caring organisation, though those things are really important, it is also about hitting your numbers. It is the how. It is about the cold, hard realities of business. If management is about discovering motivation and giving people the agency to succeed, it all starts with experience management – in a word, empathy.

Empathy may not be a brand new skill, but fresh research makes it clear how empathy is the leadership competency to develop and demonstrate now and in the future of work. 

by Gerald Fisher