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Natalia Rossingol

Don't Underestimate Empathetic Leadership: Here's Why

Are you a leader looking to improve team morale and productivity? Learn how empathetic leadership can transform your workforce.

For a modern leader, empathy is one of the most important skills. Empathetic leadership enhances performance and works miracles for the company's success. Unfortunately, not all leaders realize the true role of empathy in the workplace, treating it as a sentimental weakness.

Let’s see how empathy functions in the world of business, and why putting yourself in someone else's shoes can be not just noble, but lucrative. 

What is empathetic leadership about?

Before we start, one important thing to remember: empathy is not the same as sympathy.

Sympathy is simply “feeling sorry” for another person without understanding what it means to be in their situation. It’s more about what you feel in relation to that person.

Empathy is rather a mental process that allows you to recognize the emotional states of others, experience the same emotions, and wish to alleviate their pain.

As a leadership skill, empathy is the ability to lead with heart and see a human being in every employee, showing compassion and care.

The need for empathetic leaders

Leaders are often promoted to their roles based on technical expertise. Emotional intelligence, and empathy in particular, is not on the list of required leadership skills. However, times when a leader was the main figure in a company, have passed. Traditional management strategies dictating that there must be a power distance between a leader and employees are fading away.

What’s valued now is collaboration and new solutions, and this shifts the focus from a leader to a team. Empathetic leaders understand that team members are human beings who have families and personal problems, who hesitate and doubt and live through invisible fights. To work productively, they have to feel they’re not alone.

Why is empathy important in the workplace

For a team leader to create a productive and healthy workplace, empathy is needed like air, and here’s why:

It keeps employees engaged and has a positive impact on retention

Care and respect for each team member, demonstrated by an empathetic leader, create a sense of belonging, which is one of the basic human needs. Feeling safe, people do not waste energy thinking about how not to make the wrong move. Instead, they invest their resources into reaching their goals and being committed to the business.

Empathetic leadership makes recognizing the signs of burnout easier and helps notice when people get overworked and stressed out. An empathetic leader retains employees, reducing turnover and, consequently, costs for recruitment and employee training.       

It improves team dynamics and productivity

79% of employees quit due to a lack of appreciation, according to Zippia. Practicing empathetic leadership allows leaders to have a better understanding of what inspires their employees. Felling appreciated and encouraged, people are more willing to contribute, encounter challenges, and think in innovative ways. This way, empathetic leadership leads to higher job performance.

Since leaders typically set the mood for the whole work environment, empathy will positively affect the team culture. Being approachable and letting team members suggest new ideas and bring up problems without fear of humiliation, empathetic leaders send a powerful signal to everyone on the team, encouraging people to stick to the same values.

It has a positive impact on the bottom line

Organizations that have adopted an empathetic leadership style outperform their peers – because happy teams want to do better. The empathetic leadership approach to business will significantly influence the way your company is perceived, creating a positive brand image.

Traits that define an empathetic leader

So what are the main characteristics of an empathetic leader?

Active listening

Active listening means listening beyond the words that another person says. It requires you to understand the meaning behind a message and genuinely care about the thoughts and feelings of your counterpart. Listening actively, you’re immersed in the conversation, making the other person feel valued. This way, you build a productive dialogue.

Emotional intelligence

Emotional intelligence, an idea suggested by Goleman, is the ability to perceive and interpret the emotions of others, as well as express and control the emotions of your own. This ability helps people think before they react, taking some time to analyze the surrounding factors.

People with a high emotional intelligent coefficient are generally more empathetic. They are better at identifying the reasons for a particular behavior and solving problems with greater empathy.


Empathetic leaders realize that team members are humans made of flesh and blood, and so they cannot be treated as inanimate objects which simply do their job. This is why empathetic leaders are compassionate – willing to be kind to team members and trying to enhance their well-being.

Genuine compassion for others starts with self-compassion. Unfortunately, most leaders still don't expose their emotions, leaving their personal selves at home. This is a no-win strategy. A failure to admit your mistakes and acknowledge the pain, pretending to be strong, poisons our mental health and may lead to physical problems.

It takes some courage to let go of these harmful convictions. But without vulnerability, it’s impossible to open your heart to other people.    


Change is inevitable, so the ability to adapt is not an option – it’s a requirement.

Flexible leaders adapt to changing circumstances. They understand things may go not as planned, but they keep a positive attitude. They can handle anxiety, resistance, and complaints.

A leader without emotional flexibility closes the discussion, while an emotionally flexible leader changes the agenda, coming up with creative solutions. For example, when someone needs more time to meet a deadline, a flexible leader will allow it, finding a backup plan.


The internal beliefs of authentic leaders are aligned with their external behavior. Their decisions reflect their values and personality. They’re honest, but not rude. Being true to themselves and their principles, they build trust with their team and show empathy.  

Good communicator

Empathetic leaders are transparent in their communication, conveying the intent behind their words and actions. They always make it clear why they do what they do.

They’re approachable, and make sure their people are not afraid to raise concerns. They’re always visible – you will always find them, if you need to.      

Empathetic leaders articulate their ideas and goals with clarity, so people at all levels of the organization know what they need to accomplish. They overcommunicate, repeating themselves to make sure they’re understood correctly.

Letting people know what is ahead means you trust them. On the contrary, hiding information from those whom it may directly concern is a sign of blatant disrespect.

How to practice empathetic leadership at work

Here's some advice for you on how to develop empathetic leadership skills:

Learn, practice, and teach listening skills

A good leader is a good listener. Give people your undivided attention:

  • Listen carefully, not getting distracted by other things.
  • Practice eye contact, nod, and smile. 
  • Notice non-verbal cues, like facial expressions.
  • Paraphrase what has been said, to show understanding.
  • Ask open-ended questions.
  • Do not judge or give unasked advice.   

Get as genuine perspective as possible

Empathetic leaders are able to look at the situation from different perspectives, which lets them see an objective picture. They know a situation can look totally different if you look at it from a different angle. This is why empathetic leaders try to get to the heart of things and understand the real reasons behind actions and behaviors.

To practice empathetic leadership, get enough information about the subject or situation before making hasty conclusions. Talk to different individuals to hear their thoughts and make a final decision.  

Cultivate a high level of awareness

When we’re self-aware, we’re conscious of our own emotions, motivations, and desires. We understand our triggers – people or situations who prompt us to a certain emotion. By building self-awareness, we become more comfortable with who we are.

For empathetic leadership, self-awareness has two important implications. First, knowing your own personality, and the ways you communicate with others and react to feedback helps adjust your leadership style. Second, the ability to understand your own emotions helps read the emotions of others. In both cases, self-awareness leads to empathy.   

Integrate empathy into your core values

For organizations to thrive, empathy must be explicitly included in their value code. Talk about the importance of empathy and underline that it needs to be a part of the culture at every level of your organization. Be consistent with what you say – be empathetic yourself, to let people follow your example.

Leading with empathy, you build psychological safety, promote team building, and demonstrate a good understanding of the feelings and relationships of your people.

Show sincere interest in the needs, hopes, and dreams of other people

To be an empathetic leader, look for opportunities to build rapport with employees. One-on-one meetings are a great way to start.

Try to connect with team members at a personal level and develop a trusting relationship. Ask them about their professional goals and private lives. Ask them how they feel about the environment they work in and what they would like to change to make it a more empathetic place.   

Demonstrate compassion when other people disclose a personal loss

We all go through tough times in our personal lives. When team members face a personal crisis or experience a personal loss, they cannot always handle it by themselves. They need an empathetic leader who will provide them with support, both mental and professional.

Some people are more secretive and do not share their problems. An empathetic leader will notice that something is going wrong though. In situations when employees spend all their resources on trying to deal with something personal, a leader should demonstrate compassion – for example, give a person a leave or ask colleagues to assist. This gesture will be remembered and appreciated. 

Empathetic leadership vs. other styles

According to Kurt Lewin, a German-American psychologist, there are 3 main leadership styles: democratic, autocratic, and laissez-faire. Let’s see how empathetic each of these styles is:  

  • Democratic. This leadership style is based on the participation of team members. A democratic manager creates a culture where people can freely exchange their ideas. This style is empathetic since a democratic leader makes people feel valued and important, nurturing the ambiance of respect.     
  • Autocratic. Authoritarian leaders do not involve others in the decision-making process, having absolute power over the team. In this style, there is no room for empathy – leaders separate themselves from employees, do not trust them, and typically act as dictators.
  • Laissez-faire. Leaders following this style prefer not to intervene, giving minimum input. It can be good at those organizations where employees are pretty self-managed. But good self-management is not a frequent phenomenon. Leaving their teams with no guidance, laissez-faire leaders put them at risk – and show no empathy because team members may need support and motivation.

Of course, each of these leadership styles has its benefits. Autocratic leadership can be very productive in situations when time is limited and you cannot listen to everybody’s input. The laissez-faire style encourages the team to take responsibility. However, democratic leadership, in which empathy plays an important role, is the most productive – team members are more satisfied and work harder.      

Consequences for a company that isn't empathetic

The lack of empathy in the workplace leads to overwhelmingly negative consequences. Toxic relationships among team members. Work burnout and, as a result, lower productivity. High turnover and related costs. Failure to achieve company goals. Reputation problems.

Forgetting to treat each team member as a human being, and failing to recognize the feelings and needs of others, leaders jeopardize the future of their business.     

Some of us are naturally more empathetic, and some are less. But for a leader, empathy is one of the most important skills. You cannot make people follow you if you are not understanding and compassionate. You can manage them – but is that enough for a successful business?

To truly inspire and lead your people, you need to make them feel safe and supported. It’s not achieved by a dictatorship. Neither is it achieved by indifference. It starts with imagining yourself in someone else’s shoes. This is what empathetic leadership is about. 

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