Why Empathy is an important leadership skill

Empathic leadership can drive performance and improve retention, but it takes courage and a willingness to show vulnerability to others. Below, we discuss why this trait is increasingly sought-after as an essential tool for effective leadership.

What is Empathetic leadership?

Empathetic leadership means being aware of the feelings of others and having the ability to put yourself in their place.

Empathetic leadership might involve being sensitive to signs of burnout in others and showing a genuine interest in the needs, hopes and dreams of your team members. Empathetic leaders are willing to help employees with personal problems and show real compassion when others disclose a personal loss. Empathy is a key part of a modern leader’s emotional intelligence toolkit and is particularly essential during unstable times such as those experienced during the pandemic.

Empathy is often confused with sympathy. As leadership and vulnerability expert Brené Brown writes, “Empathy fuels connection, while sympathy drives disconnection”.

  • Sympathy involves expressing feelings of pity for someone without really understanding or connecting with their issue: “I’m sorry to hear that happened to you”.

  • Empathy involves imagining yourself in that person’s place to experience their perspective, emotions or feelings. “I understand how you’re feeling. I’ve been there myself and I know it’s tough. I’m here for you.”

Empathy requires vulnerability

When someone in the workplace displays vulnerability  by sharing something personal, being empathetic means being vulnerable in return. It takes bravery to get in touch with our own fragilities and communicate those to others. As Brown explains:

“Empathy is a choice, and it’s a vulnerable choice because in order to connect with you, I have to connect with something in myself that knows that feeling.”

Why it matters

Empathy in the workplace is positively related to job performance, according to a whitepaper by the Center for Creative Leadership which found that managers who were viewed as empathetic were rated as high-performing by others.

A Catalyst survey of 889 employees reported in Forbes found several benefits of empathy that drive business performance, including:

  • 61% of employees reported they were able to be innovative if their leaders were empathetic – a result that can be linked to psychological safety in the workplace.
  • 76% of employees who experienced empathy from leaders reported they were engaged.
  • 93% of employees reported they would stay with an empathetic employer.
  • 50% of employees with empathetic leaders believe their workplace is inclusive.
  • 86% of employees who feel their leaders were empathetic reported an ability to navigate work-life balance successfully.

Being empathetic is also invaluable in terms of conflict resolution and managing robust workplace debates, as putting yourself in someone’s place means recognising and trying to truly understand their perspective.

How to show empathetic leadership

Be patient – it takes time to build an empathetic culture among your team. It also takes time for people to open up to the point where you can get to know and understand their personal situations.

Be aware – develop your empathy “radar” to pick up on signals from others that they are having difficulty. These signals can range from obvious – a team member in tears – to subtle clues, such as someone being quieter than usual in meetings.

Listen – attentive, active listening can be difficult in a busy environment with dozens of distractions, but it has been identified as the most important skill for empathetic leadership.

Show vulnerability – While it can be tempting to project the image of a “perfect” leader untouched by emotions or personal problems, doing so will discourage others from sharing their concerns. Leaders open to understanding and exercising vulnerability at work can create an environment that fosters growth.

Use emotional language – Leaders craft such a solid professional persona that they fail to be themselves, unintentionally quashing the emotional qualities that build followership. Replace corporate-speak with authentic emotions and storytelling.

Don’t silver-line things – avoid responding to somebody’s challenge with phrases such as “At least…”.

Understand that there’s no perfect response that will “fix” things when someone discloses a personal loss. What matters is showing understanding and connection.

At Six Degrees, we have worked hard to build trust amongst the team, which is often required before someone feels comfortable enough to share personal challenges with a colleague. With a family-first ethos, we demonstrate we value the person before the performance, proactively encouraging people to take the time needed to look after themselves before continuing their work. This is not only the right thing to do but also acts as a preventive measure against stress and anxiety over the long term. Each employee is not only happier at work but performs better as well.

Get started

Becoming an empathetic leader may sound like a long journey, but the good news is that it will become second-nature as you develop an empathetic and compassionate culture in your team. Start by working on your emotional awareness and listening skills and encourage others in your team to do the same.​

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