Empathic Leadership: What It Is, Why You Need It, How to Do It

In this fast-paced business world with ever-increasing demands, it is not uncommon for leaders to become absorbed in their work and priorities to the point that they either don’t see or forget about the challenges and adversities their colleagues, team members, and customers are experiencing on a regular basis.

In a McKinsey study, almost 50% of respondents rated an empathic approach to workload balancing as a top factor in how favorably they viewed their organization’s culture during the [Covid-19] pandemic. Another survey conducted by Businessolver revealed that 60% of employees would be willing to take a pay cut to work for a more empathic company.

The evidence is clear—now more than ever, empathy will be vital to an organization’s long-term success and a sought-after leadership quality.

What Empathy Is & Isn’t

Empathic leadership is the ability to identify and understand the thoughts, feelings, differences, and experiences of others and respond accordingly. An empathic leader has an appreciation for what another person is going through and they create a psychologically safe work environment where people feel comfortable being themselves and becoming their best self.

Empathic leadership doesn’t mean you need to be everyone’s best friend, a counselor, or even that you have to adopt other people’s emotions as your own. It also doesn’t mean you can’t hold people accountable or have honest, clear, and factual coaching conversations with them.

Empathic leadership touches on a fascinating duality of being a caring human being while balancing policies, rules, regulations, expectations, and the need for results. Leaders need to be able to tackle complex challenges in innovative ways and drive results, while showing empathy when and how it is needed. If done successfully, here are a few key advantages of leading with empathy.

  • Builds trust
  • Unleashes discretionary performance
  • Creates an environment of open communication and collaboration
  • Establishes a culture of mutual respect and understanding
  • Enhances efficiency, productivity, and quality
  • Improves retention
  • Allows you to help a struggling employee develop and improve

Everyone is facing a battle of some kind and knowing this can inspire you to lead with empathy while still achieving results. Remember, you most often need empathy when things aren’t going right, but you also need it when it is going right.

coworkers gathered around a tablet

Here are five practical skills you can apply daily to further develop your empathic leadership capabilities.

  • Look Out: Be intentional in your awareness of others and recognizing situations where something seems different or wrong.
  • Reach Out: Have the courage to speak up and engage others to build understanding and validate assumptions.
  • Listen Up: Listen intently and without judgment so you can fully understand the situation and the other person’s perspective.
  • Lean In: Consider the feelings, emotions, and perspectives of others and respond with fairness and logic.
  • Check In: Provide an appropriate level of ongoing support and build relationships over the long-term by regularly checking in and showing your care.

The bottom line is empathy has an impact on team productivity, innovation, strategy, profit, and success. Why? Because it creates a culture of respect, where people can collaborate, manage change, and work through obstacles and setbacks. It makes the organization a great place to work and a great place for customers to do business, providing more opportunities for success for everybody.

Make a commitment today to be a leader who will positively impact the people around you and drive the results you seek. As you actively look to refine and fortify your ability to lead with empathy, you will build effective and constructive relationships and enrich the lives of others, including your own. Learn more about this important skill by registering for CMOE’s self-paced digital course on Empathic Leadership.

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About the Author

Emily Hodgeson-Soule

Emily Hodgson-Soule has worked with CMOE since 2009 and is the Director of Program Design and Development. She holds a Master of Professional Communication (MPC) degree with dual emphasis in writing and multimedia. Emily works closely with CMOE’s client organizations to assess their internal training and development needs and provide learning solutions that fulfill the requirements and the strategic goals of each organization.