What's Empathy in Leadership? (Plus Importance and Steps)

By Indeed Editorial Team

Published 26 April 2022

The Indeed Editorial Team comprises a diverse and talented team of writers, researchers and subject matter experts equipped with Indeed's data and insights to deliver useful tips to help guide your career journey.

Empathy is a soft skill that's vital for successful leadership. When a leader demonstrates empathy effectively, a stronger foundation of trust may be established between them and their team members. Understanding and following the steps to cultivate empathy can help you become a better leader in the workplace. In this article, we explore what it means to lead with empathy, explain why empathy is important as a leader and provide steps to improve empathetic leadership.

Related: 25 People Skills for the Workplace Including Definition

What is empathy in leadership?

Empathy in leadership refers to the ability to comprehend and be sensitive to the thoughts, emotions and actions of others. It's the ability to understand a situation from another person's perspective and respond with compassion. An empathetic leader expresses genuine concern over their team members' lives and the challenges they're undergoing by asking relevant questions. They interact with their staff in a way that makes them feel cared for and safe.

For example, a team member may have missed the deadline for a project. Instead of getting angry and scolding them, an empathetic leader may first enquire about the reason for the delay. The reason could be a family member being critically ill. In such a scenario, the leader remembers themselves being in a similar situation in the past and reflects on the impact of that event on their work performance. They may then provide the team member with time off work and even communicate this news to other colleagues so that they can show their support too.

Why is empathy important in leadership?

Leaders play a central role in companies by utilising and guiding individual efforts towards a collective goal. Their behaviour, actions and decisions have significant impacts on the staff and the success of the company. Empathy is a highly valued skill that helps leaders positively influence their team members. Here are reasons for the importance of empathy in the workplace:

Increased productivity

When employees feel appreciated and valued at work, they're more likely to work harder. They may feel highly motivated to come into work because they enjoy the work environment. This may lead to lower levels of absenteeism throughout the department or company. With higher levels of attendance and motivation, there's increased productivity at work. This also creates a culture of strong work ethic among the team and may result in high-quality work.

Improved staff retention

Empathetic leaders may be highly supportive of their team members and encourage them with positive words or incentivise them with rewards such as gifts or recognition before the entire team. Team members may value such a positive work environment and have higher levels of job satisfaction. This can increase staff retention as they may be unwilling to resign from the job even if other companies offer a better compensation package. They may prioritise their job satisfaction and loyalty to the company over better pay at a competitor company.

The presence of empathetic leadership can also improve the hiring process. When new hires read online reviews about the excellent company culture, they may be more likely to join the company. This can attract highly qualified and talented candidates to apply for the vacancies in the company, leading to greater organisational success in the future.

Enhanced levels of creativity and innovation

Empathetic leaders may encourage the sharing of ideas among team members and give positive and tactful comments on those ideas. When employees feel comfortable speaking up and contributing their ideas, they may be more confident to be creative. This may lead to greater levels of creativity in the workplace which may result in unique solutions to marketing problems or the introduction of a new and improved product.

Better teamwork

There may be stronger bonds between team members when there's a supportive and positive culture at the workplace. Team members can work with others better on projects when the leader has created an encouraging work environment. This can increase the work performance of teams and lead to greater success in projects.

Related: How to Improve Leadership Skills: Guideline and Tips

How to improve empathy as a leader

Empathy is a skill that you can learn so follow these steps to improve this soft skill:

1. Listen intently

You can show your team members that you're genuinely concerned about them by listening intently to what they're saying and being patient with them. By putting your phone in silent mode when they're speaking, you can demonstrate that you're giving them your full attention. Give them the freedom to express their concerns or challenges without any interruptions or objections. Show that you're listening to them attentively by nodding your head, giving short verbal comments, mirroring facial gestures and smiling.

2. Pay attention to body language

When speaking to your team members, pay attention to their body language, such as their tone of voice, facial expressions and hand gestures. This can give you a deeper insight into their emotions and state of mind. By being more observant of their body language, you can understand them better and know if they're stressed or upset very quickly. For example, you may be walking past a team member's desk and observe that they're stressed as they're sighing a lot. You can then ask them if they need help with their work or if they're facing any other difficulties.

3. Ask clarifying questions

A good way to demonstrate empathy is to ask questions about what they've just told you. This shows that you're listening carefully and are interested in or concerned about what they're sharing with you. For example, you may ask more details about the event they're describing by asking about the time or place where it occurred. You may even reiterate the reasons why they're feeling the way they do to ensure you understand the situation accurately and to let them know that their experiences are important.

Related: Team Management Skills: Examples and Improvement Strategies

4. Build a personal bond with your team

Make an effort to build relationships with your team members by proactively getting to know them. This can be in the form of a one-on-one meeting in the office or over lunch or coffee. During these meetings, ask your team members about how they're doing and how they're coping with their work. You can also share your own life and work experiences so that they can get to know you better and trust you more. This can facilitate more open and honest conversations and lead to stronger bonds.

You can consider ways to engage with the entire team too, such as by having team lunches or celebrating a team member's birthday after work. By spending time with them outside of the work context, you can get to know them more personally and develop a genuine concern for them. These activities also help to strengthen bonds among team members.

Related: 11 Team-Building Activities for Companies (With Tips)

5. Recognise different perspectives

Even though you may not agree with some perspectives, it's crucial to recognise them and take them seriously. It's important to remember and acknowledge that people come from different backgrounds and have varied experiences. Therefore, they may see the same situation or event differently. Accept that not all your team members may agree with you and seek to understand their reasons in a positive manner.

6. Implement employee analytics

If you're in charge of a large team, you may not be able to see or speak to each one of your team members frequently enough to assess how they're doing. In such cases, consider using analytics to help you better understand and empathise with your team members. You can collect real-time feedback from your team members by sending out questionnaires on their level of satisfaction and happiness. You can design these questionnaires with the option of being anonymous to gather honest feedback.

After studying the data received, you can understand what the primary concerns of the staff members are and decide which areas to focus on. This may help you to devise meaningful and actionable plans to improve the morale of the employees.

7. Undergo formal leadership training

Depending on your learning style, you can consider improving your skills by attending a class, workshop or seminar. You can learn from an emotional intelligence expert about the importance of empathy and find out how to become more empathetic. They may share insights from research conducted in this field and may also provide practical steps to improve empathy in the workplace. When other leaders present at the workshop share their experiences, you can learn valuable lessons and tips and practise them in your workplace.

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