Leading with Empathy

Have you ever witnessed the sport of rowing?

If not, rowing is a sport where team members need to work together to row the boat toward the finish line in synchrony.

However, this is easier said than done.

Before a rowing team can successfully row a boat, each rower must be able to understand fully what their role in the team. Every stroke they make must be carefully planned and collaborated. They must carefully plan and practice their communication. Everyone must be interconnected, but most importantly, the leader must have a deep connection with each team member.

A leader must know each of their members' strengths and weaknesses, how their team members feel that day — are they feeling well enough to row the boat, what their team needs, what condition their team is in, and try to address those concerns.

The same goes for every team and organisation. Although individual members make up a team or an organisation, the leader drives an organisation towards success. And to drive their organisation to achieve their goals, a leader must be able to connect with every team member.

Therefore, organisations must hire and train more effective managers and leaders capable of driving their team ahead in good and bad times. Organisations need to develop leaders who can connect and engage their team members to “row” their organisation asynchronously. This necessitates looking beyond typical management development tactics and cultivating skills and competencies that can lead to their team’s success.

Undeniably, empathy is one of those competencies.

Empathy: A Vital Leadership Competency

Unfortunately, some have long regarded empathy as a “soft-skill" and have neglected it as a performance indicator. Research disproves this thinking otherwise.

Research done by Catalyst on 889 employees showed how empathetic leadership could bring about a significant impact in an organisation:

Innovation. 61% of employees who indicated that their leaders were empathic were more likely to report their potential to be innovative than 13% who had less empathic leaders.

Engagement. 76% of people who experienced empathy from their leaders were more engaged than 32% of those who experienced less empathy.

Inclusivity. 50% of people with empathetic leaders reported their workplace was inclusive, compared with only 17% of those with less empathetic leadership.

Balance. People who believed their leaders were more empathic reported being able to negotiate the demands of their work and other areas of life—successfully juggling their personal, family, and work obligations—compared to 60% of those who felt their leaders were less empathetic.

Another study conducted by the Center for Creative Leadership looked into the role empathy plays ineffective leadership.

The study found that the ability to understand what others are feeling is a quality that plays a part to effective leadership. The study found a striking connection between empathy and performance, placing an even more significant weight on empathy as a vital leadership attribute.

These studies indeed indicate that leaders need to be more "people-focused" and work well with people from diverse teams, departments, countries, cultures, and backgrounds to be successful in this fast-paced, ever-changing world.

Leading with Empathy

Empathetic leadership is understanding the needs of your team, being aware of their feelings, emotions, perspectives, and being actively interested in their concerns.

To be a genuinely empathetic leader, you must first demonstrate a level of comprehension. This necessitates attentively listening to what someone is going through and asking the appropriate questions to acquire a better understanding. Such a leader will regularly check in with a team and utilise that time to examine how people are doing— not just with job responsibilities but also with their overall mental wellness. If this isn't something you do naturally, it's good to plan regular check-ins with key staff, partners, and customers to see what they're worried about and how you can help. Otherwise, before you know it, a crucial employee will have resigned, and you'll be wishing you had seen it coming.

Finding time to talk personally is not just excellent for a team; it can also help the business's bottom line by fostering a sense of inclusivity.

Secondly, a truly empathetic leader puts empathy into action. In our previous article, we talked to you about the dark side of empathy and how having too much empathy can endanger our mental, physical, social and emotional well-being. Putting that empathy into action is also one way to navigate it and prevent you from going to its dark side.

Putting your empathy into action will also cultivate trust within your team. Your team will trust you and feel more engaged and committed when there is consistency between what you say and do. Your empathy for someone else's circumstances should be translated into compassion and action. Understanding an employee's difficulties and volunteering to assist is an example of empathy in action.

So, empathy in action is appreciating another person’s point of view. It is engaging in a constructive debate that leads to a better solution. It considers a team member's viewpoint and makes a new recommendation that contributes to higher achievement.

Indeed, empathy inaction leads to more outstanding teamwork and collaboration.

Cultivating Empathy

Knowing the importance of empathy, you must cultivate empathy within yourself and your team.

Empathy, fortunately, is a learnable skill. Almost anyone can learn it (Shapiro, 2002). Coaching, training, or other forms of professional development can help leaders improve their capacity for empathy.

Here are some developmental tips on how you can develop your empathy as a leader:

• The key to empathy is listening. Listen deeply to the other person’s words by quieting your mind, stilling the inner clamour. And listen to the other person's needs (to be respected, included, and acknowledged, for example.)

• Identify underlying problems that aren't being expressed clearly by others.

• Hear the emotions that go along with what they say.

• When someone approaches you to express their feelings, pay attention (don't be so preoccupied that you can't talk to them about what's important to them; don't dismiss them).

• Confirm what you believe you've heard. Replicate and clarify the emotions you think you're hearing (for example, "Sounds like you're frustrated," or "Sounds like you're extremely excited about this project”)

• Withhold your judgments; resist if you're tempted to condemn or discard another's viewpoint. Take a step back and examine what the other person is going through, both emotionally and cognitively, and what merits another's point of view may have.

If you feel that you have trouble regulating your empathy, this article can help you with that:


As you cultivate your empathy, use the acronym LISTEN to practice the following tips to develop empathy in your team and organisation:

Look into your team’s empathy.

For your team to be united and in sync, each team member should be able to empathise with one another. However, as much as you want to have an empathetic team, you want your team to learn how to regulate their empathy. So, looking into your team's empathy can help you gauge where your team is at with their empathy:

Do they lack empathy? Or do they have too much of it?

Intentionally cultivate empathy within your team.

Whether increasing your team's empathy or regulating it, you need to be intentional in cultivating this competency as a leader.

Seek professional help.

As mentioned earlier, empathy is, fortunately, a learnable skill (Shapiro, 2002). Seeking the help of a professional coach and trainer will give you and your team credible tools and strategies that are tailor-made so you can develop your empathy.

We at People Builders have a team of professional trainers and coaches who can help you and your team develop the competencies you need so you can drive your organisation to greater heights.

Teach empathy in the workplace to emphasise its value.

Make it clear to your team members that empathy is essential. While task-oriented skills such as monitoring, planning, controlling, and commanding performance or "making the numbers" are significant, understanding, caring for, and developing others are equally important, if not more so, in today's workforce. Explain how giving others your time and attention builds empathy, which increases your performance and perceived effectiveness.

Specific empathy tests (such as the Benchmarks assessment utilized in this study) can be used to provide feedback on individual and organizational empathy capability.

Encourage your team to think about things from different perspectives.

Your team should learn to put themselves in the shoes of one another regularly. This includes considering each other's personal experiences or viewpoints which can be used for problem-solving, conflict resolution, and innovation.

Never stop practicing empathy.

The best way to develop your empathy – whether by improving or regulating it – is by practicing it. Practicing even small acts of empathy daily will help you develop and improve this competency.

Indeed empathy is a skill leaders should develop to help navigate their organisation successfully through the waves of life.

Contact us today for training and coaching for you and your team in the skills required to develop and maintain empathy in your team.

We Are Here to Help

At People Builders, we have a team of expert trainers and coaches who can help you in building you and your team’s Empathy and Emotional Intelligence. Contact us today for a quick chat to see how we can partner with you to train and coach you and your team.

If you are interested in becoming certified to be a trainer and coach in Social and Emotional Intelligence, Applied Neuroscience, or Extended DISC, go to our People Builders Institute website.

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