The Importance of Empathy in Leadership

Empathy in leadership is about understanding others, acknowledging their problems, and inspiring them to go beyond their capabilities. Many companies now place a greater emphasis on this quality. Find out why.

The job market has seen various changes recently, with employees looking for better jobs. The movement known as the Great Resignation gave birth to other trends, such as job hopping and quiet quitting.

Why do employees decide not to stick to one company for decades? People choose companies that support remote work, sustain a healthy work-life balance, and ley them develop skills to their maximum. And disasters like COVID-19 showed the importance of spending your life on what matters.

Businesses also take new approaches to hire professionals. Trying to optimise their budgets and reduce risks, business owners consider not only candidates’ education and work experience but also their soft skills. That’s where empathy becomes a decisive factor in hiring someone, especially a team leader. In this article, we’ll consider empathy in leadership, its difference from sympathy and compassion, and ways to develop this skill to grow as a manager.

Defining empathy in the workplace

Empathy is the act of looking at the situation from another person’s perspective. It involves understanding the emotions of your interlocutor as they deal with various circumstances, concerns, and life events.

Empathy encourages people to go beyond their own experiences. For example, you may be more resilient to others’ criticism, while your colleagues may spend hours feeling guilty after an unpleasant meeting with their boss.

This feeling is critical in various situations, whether interacting with co-workers, family, or clients. The fact is that empathy lets you build connections with others. Take customer service as an example. While businesses introduce innovative solutions, such as headless commerce or composable commerce, to enhance the user experience, they may overlook the human component of the shopping experience. However, empathy is one of the most undervalued yet essential skills.

A Gallup survey reveals only 29% of millennials feel engaged at work. 60% of respondents are open to new employment alternatives. So almost two-thirds of employees are disengaged, leading to the following issues:

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  • more absenteeism;
  • decreased productivity;
  • reduced profitability;
  • a drop in the company’s stock price.

That’s where empathy can help. As Forbes says, empathy in leadership ensures engagement in the workplace for 76% of people in contrast to 32% with less empathy at their jobs.

Empathy is more than saying you’re sorry. It requires you to put yourself in the other person’s shoes and deliver the message, “I feel you. You’re not alone.” As for empathic leadership, such people can consider their employees’ wants and feelings while making decisions. This leadership style promotes communication, inspires workers, and establishes trust.

Empathy vs. sympathy vs. compassion

Empathy, sympathy, and compassion are similar but different terms. Empathy typically entails a much more active desire to comprehend another person, while compassion and sympathy are about a more passive relationship.

Empathy vs. sympathy

Expressing sympathy doesn’t involve sharing another person’s emotions. You feel sorry or pity for what happened without going deeper into the situation and what it may cause. So it provides a surface-level understanding. Sympathetic people also often give unwanted advice to help others overcome the problem, while empathy denies judgement.

Empathy vs. compassion

Compassion is an emotional reaction when you want to help someone in a difficult situation. It may include various cases, from giving a seat to an older person to smiling at your colleague. The ultimate goal is to support people and prevent them from suffering when needed. The difference between empathy and compassion is the distinction between feeling and action.

Compassionate people choose to do something good, while empathy requires only experiencing a feeling. While empathy is a natural emotional response, compassion is a choice. Empathy requires you to feel the same emotions, while compassion doesn’t entail understanding others.

Why is empathy important in leadership?

What can an empathic leader offer to their subordinates? Such a person can spot burnout warning signals and take care of the team members’ needs, aspirations, and goals. Life is full of personal issues, and a true manager is willing to assist employees and exhibits genuine interest. Empathy is a crucial component of a modern leader’s emotional intelligence arsenal. It becomes more critical in challenging situations like pandemics, crises, and inflation.

Empathy in leadership enhances the workplace culture. By using it, a company can achieve the following benefits:

  • improve employee retention;
  • boost engagement levels;
  • recruit top talent more successfully;
  • promote creativity
  • increase employee satisfaction;
  • achieve better business results.

Three characteristics of an empathic leader

Excellent listener

A good conversation isn’t one when everyone speaks non-stop. This conversation may mean no one is interested in their interlocutor. People may discuss stuff important to them, not to others, leading the dialog to nowhere.

An enjoyable discussion requires excellent listening skills. Good listeners are attentive and not talkative while giving someone their complete attention. Making eye contact and removing interruptions (such as Emails or phone calls) allows the other person to speak freely and feel valued.


The ability to listen without passing judgement is the second trait of an empathic leader. Nonjudgmental conversation contains no bias and involves understanding without agreeing or disagreeing with others.

Emotionally intelligent

Emotional intelligence revolves around seeing things as they are and understanding your and others’ emotions. Being emotionally intelligent is crucial since it enables you to understand other people’s conditions deeply.

Why someone lacks empathy in leadership

Why do people differ in their empathy levels? There is some controversy over this question. Is someone born with little empathy? Or can their upbringing, social circumstances, or life events influence the development of this trait? Genetics may also be important.

Everyone may occasionally have trouble empathising. For instance, you may not feel and express empathy for someone who has hurt you before. And that’s normal. Let’s consider other factors contributing to low empathy.

Developmental and cognitive disorders

Brain development can influence the level of empathy and the ability to understand feelings. It applies to such conditions as a narcissistic personality disorder (NPD), autism, borderline personality disorder (BPD), etc. The degree of empathy varies for each disease. For example, someone may be able to show empathy but not feel it. Others, like autistic people, can comprehend others’ emotions but can’t express theirs.

Stress, fatigue, and low emotional intelligence

Empathy and emotional intelligence go hand in hand. The lower your emotional quotient (EQ) is, the harder it is for you to empathise. Long-term stress is another reason for the lack of empathy. It reduces the ability to consider other perspectives and makes a leader less tolerant of other people’s actions. Take regular breaks from work to foster a healthy culture in the workplace.

In some circumstances, emotional avoidance may also be a factor of low empathy. When someone is emotionally exhausted, they may avoid any further causes of distress, including connecting with the problems of others.

Cognitive and group biases

Prejudice is one of the reasons for not feeling empathy. Whether people adopt a certain attitude in a group or disregard other people’s experiences, they become reluctant to put themselves in someone else’s shoes. A case in point is a social circle. People trust and empathise with someone from their group or race, who looks similar to them and shares their values.

Can you learn to be empathetic?

The short answer is that empathy is a skill. And you can develop and hone your skills with a bit of time and patience. Some people have a natural ability to exude empathy and easily show recognition and understanding. When it comes to being an excellent manager or motivator, they will have an advantage. But don’t let that stop you from practising!

Coaching and training can help you learn to be empathetic. Plus, meeting people, getting to know their jobs, and studying the organisation inside and out are other effective ways to increase empathy. They allow you to recognise achievements and understand frustrations. And these qualities will make you a genuine and reliable leader, increasing productivity and loyalty.

How to become an empathetic leader

Image: Pexels

How to become an empathetic leader

Respect personal issues and help overcome them

For years, managers have insisted that personal life shouldn’t interfere with work. Employees should have a clear division of responsibilities. But it’s difficult to ensure as personal lives become more and more demanding. From migration to problems with kids at school, modern employees have to deal with dozens of minor and major difficulties. As a result, their personal and professional lives frequently overlap.

Leaders should accept that employees are people with personal lives and concerns. Support team members and help them find the best solution. There are two rules to demonstrate empathy in leadership in such cases: maintain open communication and let everyone know your desire to help. It’s sometimes enough to talk, but employees hesitate to do it with their bosses.

Prevent workplace burnout

Workplace burnout is a significant problem, especially when high stress levels are the norm. It reduces employee productivity, causes work dissatisfaction, and harms team relationships. So you should treat it to prevent burnout from hurting the company.

Why can a person become burnt out? This condition occurs when your staff work toward a strict deadline or juggle too many duties at once. That’s where empathy should step in. Empathic leadership can spot burnout symptoms to sustain engagement in the work processes, eliminate work injuries, and stop staff turnover.

Show genuine emotions

You can’t fake empathy, as everyone will notice the deceit. Being real is the only way to gain people’s trust, so focus on honesty. Suppose your employee shares their concerns about a specific issue with the organisation.

You don’t have to follow everything people suggest, but always demonstrate empathy and explain reasons for accepting or declining particular offers. Hiding your emotions isn’t the best way to deal with the staff. Instead, acknowledge these feelings and transform them into constructive actions.

Plan one-on-one conversations

Setting up one-on-one meetings is among the simplest and most efficient ways to conduct a pulse survey. What do your employees currently go through? How do they feel about it?

If you don’t want to schedule meetings, let your staff know about them. Encourage employees to turn to you or an HR professional to arrange a conversation whenever your team feels the need.

A one-on-one discussion lets you determine the impact of work or life on your colleagues, as you can’t predict everyone’s reaction to similar situations. These gatherings can be official and held in the office or informal over coffee or lunch in a cafe.

Employ automation and analytics tools

A leader has too many tasks to conduct meetings with the staff. So if you’re pressed with time, you may use the power of analytics to gather employees’ reviews about the work environment.

Analytics isn’t about machines alone. It can provide valuable insights into the organisation while automating manual activities. For example, you can create one poll and send it to the staff. Employees will answer questions in their free time, and the system will collect the results. It’s fast, and it’s efficient.

An offline meeting may seem more productive than a survey. Yet, most people will remain silent due to the fear of sharing information in public. But if it’s written form, these employees may feel free to describe the situation. If the staff doesn’t want to provide their names for these surveys, make them anonymous. However, you should strongly urge people to chat with you about any issues they may be experiencing at work or elsewhere.

In Summary

Employers and managers need to demonstrate empathy at work. Why has this trait become essential in leadership? As hard as it may seem, we are moving away from mechanisation and toward humanisation. So the more you value others’ emotions, the better you can motivate them to work productively and participate in the company’s life.

Unfortunately, ambitious people who move up the career ladder frequently lack empathy. How does it happen? A contributing factor to the issue is the business’s priorities when rewarding, retaining, and promoting employees. For most of them, high technical expertise matters more than the person’s ability and desire to support the success and well-being of others.

Start changes in your company by demonstrating empathy in the workplace. This way, you can encourage your staff to recognise the value of empathy in leadership. Remember, a great leader can relate to and understand the team members’ feelings, helping them get through difficult times. So try tips from this article to master such soft skills.


About the Author

Kate Parish, chief marketing officer at Onilab, Magento 2 PWA development agency. Kate helps businesses grow by developing practical and measurable digital marketing strategies. She shares her expertise in SEO, branding, link-building, and digital marketing tools for attracting, nurturing, and converting the target audience into loyal customers.

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