Fostering Empathic Leadership in Your Organization: Why It Matters

Date published
A manager guides her team using an empathic leadership style.

Developing a leadership team with empathy toward team members is key to unlocking potential. Here are some ideas about empathic leadership and how to make it a team priority.

In traditional leadership models, feelings are often secondary to achievements; leaders typically focus on command and control. They tell their team members what needs to be done, and their goal is to control the action. In this model, managers have all the answers, and they impart their knowledge and expectations to their team members, who they hope will dutifully follow their lead. 

Today’s world of constant change requires a different leadership style. Rather than providing all the answers and micromanaging their people, leaders need to engender energy, innovation, and commitment in their teams. And to do this effectively, many will need to develop a deeper sense of curiosity and awareness about the underlying motivations of their people; in other words, they need to develop greater empathy. 

Empathic leadership is critical for organizations to succeed in a climate of fast-paced change. An empathetic workplace fosters a productive, supportive, and collaborative environment, and to be effective, empathy has to start with company leaders. 

Why empathic leadership is critical

Empathic leadership is more critical now than ever before. The COVID-19 pandemic showed many organizations and leaders that they must account for team members feeling anxious, emotionally exhausted, sad, and irritable. Any such stress in their lives makes it more difficult for them to perform their jobs, and the situation exacerbates itself when they aren’t in a supportive work environment. 

The lack of support from leaders negatively affects team and individual performance, as well as collaboration and customer service.  People who are treated unkindly at work also become more likely to leave their jobs.   

Empathy by the numbers

The value of empathic leadership is apparent when you look at the numbers. When team members have empathetic managers, they are more likely to be innovative and engaged, and less likely to leave their jobs. They also balance their work-life demands more effectively, and they feel more positively about their employers. 

Approximately 61% of team members with empathic leaders report being innovative, compared to only 13% of team members without empathic leaders. Similarly, under empathic leadership, 76% of individuals report being thoroughly engaged with their positions, compared to 32% under less-enlightened management. 

In relation to retention, well over half of team members who work with empathic leaders say they would not consider leaving their job — that number falls to less than a third when you take empathy out of the equation.    

How leaders demonstrate empathy

Leaders can demonstrate empathy to their teams in different ways, but two main categories include cognitive empathy and emotional empathy. Cognitive empathy is considering what you would do in someone’s situation, while emotional empathy requires you to think about how you would feel in someone’s situation. 

The latter tends to be more effective. It requires managers to look past their own perspectives and think about their team members’ unique context. However, effective empathic leaders don’t just consider their employee’s feelings. Instead, they inquire about challenges and actively listen to them.  

As Maya Angelou famously said, “People will forget what you said, people will forget what you did, but they will never forget how you made them feel.”  Team members tend to work harder and be more loyal toward leaders who empathize with them and help them feel good. 

Empathy hinges on curiosity

Before a leader can be genuinely empathic, they need to be curious. For example, if a team member is stressed out or upset, effective leaders aim to find out more about what’s happening without making assumptions. They ask questions with the intent to create a safe space for open and honest communication. 

This standpoint of curiosity leads to more empathy. Empathy, in turn, leads to compassion. This creates a kind, supportive environment where people want to be at work, and they also want to support their organization and its mission. 

Coaching is an empathic leadership tool

Coaching is a tool used by empathic leaders that supports the ongoing development of an organization and its team members. When you coach instead of manage, you ask questions rather than supply answers. You support team members rather than judge them. You facilitate development rather than dictate actions. 

Coaching isn’t just about sharing what you know. It’s about sparking insights and unlocking potential. 

Challenges of implementing empathic leadership

While it may come quite naturally to some, many traditional leaders resist empathic leadership. By switching to this model, they lose their most familiar management tool — asserting their authority. But this is changing. In 2000, leaders ranked coaching as their least favorite leadership style, but two decades later, they realize empathetic models are key to a successful workforce. 

Unfortunately, embracing empathy is not as simple as it looks, and leaders routinely overestimate their coaching abilities. To become more empathetic, leaders often need ongoing training and resources. 

How to become a more empathic leader

If you want to become a more empathetic leader, you need to show interest in the needs, hopes, and goals of your team. You need to recognize your team members as whole people rather than just cogs in your company’s machine.  

This process involves basics such as watching for signs of burnout or showing compassion when team members talk about personal issues. However, it also requires you to embrace active listening and to hone your coaching skills.  

Empathetic leaders help their teams identify goals and the best way to accomplish them. When their team members encounter challenges, they engage with them, broaden the conversation, and help them find fresh, productive options. 

Empathic leadership isn’t just about making other team members feel good. It’s about supporting the mission of your organization. Ultimately, empathic leadership is about mining the potential of your people to create mutual prosperity. 

Optimizing this leadership style might take some extra work and training, but the results will be worth it. 

Contact 360Rocks to talk about empathic leadership today

At 360Rocks, we want to make a difference in the world just as much as you do, so we focus on helping our clients grow and improve the health of their teams in ways that support their mission, goals and long-term sustainability. 
To learn more about you can develop more empathic leadership in your organization, contact us to set up a free 90-minute discovery workshop with your leadership team.