empathetic leader

What Is Empathetic Leadership?

Empathetic or empathic leadership is an ability to identify and understand the thoughts, feelings, and differences of others and respond accordingly.

Your colleagues and team members are human beings who want to feel respected and valued at work. When people feel valued, it drives better morale, performance, and engagement. Empathetic leaders understand this and make it a priority to interact with and treat colleagues with respect as well as do what is necessary and within their capability to help them navigate difficult projects, situations, and moments in their lives.

Keep in mind, being an empathetic leader isn’t simply about being a nice person; it’s about fostering the authentic connections and trust needed to enhance relationships and build high-performing teams, while still maintaining accountability for results.

Empathic leadership touches on a fascinating duality: being a caring human being while balancing policies, rules, regulations, and expectations. Leaders need to be able to tackle complex challenges and produce outcomes while showing empathy when and how it is needed. This is why empathy is listed as the most important leadership skill.

What Are the Characteristics of an Empathetic Leader?

Four characteristics encompass an empathetic leader:

1. Intuitive: Empathetic leaders are willing to look outward and sense when team members need more connection, support, or direction in their work. They get to know their team members well enough to know their strengths and weaknesses, as well as when something is different or wrong. These leaders are skilled at taking in and reflecting on the emotions and perspective of others and using that insight to make thoughtful decisions about how to respond and proceed next.

2. Good listeners: It is difficult to have empathy until you fully understand the other person, so empathetic leaders use active-listening skills as they engage their team members and colleagues. This allows them to understand the situation and the other person’s perspective. They listen by being fully present and allowing people to say what is on their mind without interrupting. They also maintain eye contact and manage their non-verbals. When appropriate, these leaders ask questions for clarity and summarize what they heard.

3. Inclusive: An empathetic leader actively pursues different perspectives to learn from others and adopts a collaborative approach. They understand the value of diverse thinking and leverage it to achieve better outcomes. This creates a safe space where team members feel comfortable sharing their ideas, opinions, and concerns.

4. Supportive: Empathetic leaders want team members to be the best version of themselves. They support their ideas and goals and provide them opportunities to experiment, learn, and challenge themselves. When issues and obstacles arise, an empathic leader is willing to provide help and guidance when appropriate.

leader listening to employee sitting next to them at a table

Why Is Empathy Important in Leadership?

When empathy is a leadership priority, improvements can be seen in the following four areas:

1. Innovation: Sixty-one percent of workforce members with empathetic leaders feel they can be innovative at work. Compare this to only 13% of team members with less-empathetic leaders.

2. Trust: Eighty-seven percent of team members say empathetic leadership fosters trust between teams and leaders.

3. Retention: Seventy-nine percent of U.S. workers believe empathetic leadership reduces turnover, and a staggering 90% express that it leads to better job satisfaction.

4. Morale: When workforce members feel heard and valued, team morale improves. Eighty-six percent of individuals agree with this, and 87% believe it is necessary to create a more inclusive environment.

How Do You Practice Empathetic Leadership in the Workplace?

Increase your commitment and capacity to lead empathetically using the four practices below:

1. Step Inside the Shoes of Others

It can be easy to develop tunnel vision and believe that your perspective is reality, but it’s crucial to remember that there many situations, perspectives, and experiences that differ from your own.

Empathy begins by acknowledging other people’s feelings and experiences. Listen to them and be engaged. Step back and try to see things based on the viewpoints, unique feelings, and needs of others. As you do so, be mindful that you don’t allow assumptions or personal opinions to color your thinking or feelings. Listening with intent and acknowledging what they are experiencing will create conditions where you can set or clarify expectations in a constructive way while building trust.

2. Ask Clarifying Questions

When team members express concerns, an empathetic leader takes the time not only to listen, but to also ask follow-up questions. The intention is to gain a more holistic understanding of their experience. In addition, asking clarifying questions helps the other party feel heard and understood.

Give people enough time to respond fully to your questions and make it safe for them to ask questions of you. There are two types of clarifying questions:

  • Open clarifying questions: Ask the other person to elaborate on specific elements of their message.
  • Closed clarifying questions: Reiterate the message and ask the other person to confirm whether the reiteration is accurate and reflects their true intentions.

3. Display Vulnerability

Vulnerability is often stigmatized as a sign of weakness. In reality, vulnerability breaks down barriers, which creates space for people to express how they truly think and feel. When done well, this nurtures psychological safety and trust.

Vulnerability in your approach to leadership may include the following:

  • Asking for help, because even leaders need assistance at times. This will not only help drive projects forward but will also encourage team members to step up. Inviting others to contribute can enhance collaboration and team unity.
  • Establish clear expectations and lines of communication: It’s essential to let others know what you can and can’t do, as well as what is within and outside of your control. Examples of boundaries may include
    • Sharing with others what times your focus hours are to help you dedicate time for your projects, or setting up a status on your messaging platform that informs others that you are in focus mode.
    • Delegating work to manage a more reasonable workload or saying no to extra requests.
    • Clarifying what you can and cannot commit to doing.

4. Identify Solutions with Team Members

While it might be easier to prescribe solutions to problems on your own, empathetic leadership involves acknowledging and incorporating others’ ideas. Demonstrate that you are open and flexible by taking their feelings and ideas into consideration.

With an understanding of the person and situation in mind, consider their thoughts about a way forward as you make decisions and determine actions. Keep in mind that what works for one person may not work for others.

Do not forget to establish metrics or milestones for the agreed-upon solution. This establishes accountability, as everyone will be set up to follow through with necessary action.

With the diverse array of situations, projects, and challenges leaders face, it’s critical to have leadership tools that will help you continually grow and feel confident. CMOE’s Flexible Leadership Workshop and Empathic Leadership on-demand course are valuable resources for your leadership journey. Learn more about how these programs elevate leadership skills when it comes to empathy, communication, and engaging team members.

Discover how CMOE's leadership training workshops can create lasting change and address the unique needs of its leaders.