Reasons Why Empathy Matters in Leadership (With How-to Guide)

By Indeed Editorial Team

Published 18 July 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 refers to a person's ability to understand the needs of those around them. This emotional skill can greatly benefit your employees, your company's profitability and the quality of the final product. Empathising with your employees' needs in the workplace can help them overcome challenges they face performing their job, which can simultaneously improve their relationship with their employers and increase workplace efficiency. In this article, we discuss reasons why empathy matters in leadership and provide a how-to guide on becoming an empathetic leader.

What are the reasons why empathy matters in leadership?

The following is a list of reasons why empathy matters in leadership:

Encourages innovation

As a leader, you typically want to foster a work environment in which your employees can feel comfortable sharing their practical perspectives on their work. You may have a broad understanding of the company's workflow as a whole, but your employees are regularly implementing the necessary procedures to perform the work. As such, your employees could help you discover more efficient methods of performing their work. This could include reconsidering certain workplace procedures and adjusting in accordance with the employees' suggestions.

You could also use your position of authority to organise innovative employee ideas to initiate large-scale changes to the company workflow. This could involve fostering communication across multiple departments within the company. As an example, imagine that you're the manager of a food production company and one of your warehouse employees noticed that the warehouse is throwing out a large amount of product. You ask this employee to communicate with the procurement professional, and together they realise the company is purchasing too much product. With this information, you help the employees reduce the amount of product the warehouse wastes.

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Encourages diversity

By creating an empathetic work environment, you can encourage your employees to comfortably express their cultural and intellectual differences. Fostering cultural discussions in the workplace can facilitate a working environment in which all employees feel accepted and appreciated. A company that can offer its employees a safe place to express themselves could encourage those employees to remain loyal to the company longer. If you retain employees longer, they could become more adept at performing their work, which could improve the quality and speed of their work.

Positive diversity and inclusion can also reflect positively on the company's public image. You may receive more applications from a broader range of professionals because they appreciate your work environment, which could help your company expand operations. Customers may also appreciate the inclusive environment that you cultivated, which could convince them to purchase your product or service as opposed to patronising your competitors.

Validates employees' work

Another long-term benefit of practising empathy in a leadership position is that you can help your employees feel pride in their work. Empathy encourages you to learn more about what motivates your employees to do a good job, and an empathic leader understands that they could nurture this natural motivation. By allowing the employee to set the terms of their preferred motivation, they may respond more readily to that motivator. This could also allow employees to feel a sense of ownership of their work, as the feeling of accomplishment they feel originates from their own preferences.

Validation from an authority figure can give their work meaning and value. For example, if an employee works particularly hard when they're developing a weekly newsletter, they may create a valuable information resource for other employees. You could explicitly state this value to the employee and encourage them to continue contributing their excellent work to the company.

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Motivates others to be empathetic

Empathy is a powerful social motivator. By normalising empathetic behaviour in the workplace, you may eventually convince the staff to act the same way with each other. They may begin to realise that they appreciate how you consider their feelings and their preferences, and may want to contribute to the positive work environment you're building. This process can develop a sense of trust and connection between the team members and yourself.

This feeling of comfort may also encourage them to offer their insight and participate in strategising, as you're proving that you care about their perspectives. This can also prove that you want to understand their perspectives. This could similarly encourage team members to help one another, which can further develop a trusting working relationship between them and the leadership.

Improves morale

By encouraging communication and engaging with employee ideas on innovation, the team members are likely to be much happier working for you. Positive morale is an intangible, long-term resource that can benefit both the longevity of your company and the size of its profit margin. Morale can affect every aspect of the business from planning to conception, so taking the time to invest in it can help the company grow healthily.

Improved morale can contribute to a greater willingness to perform quality work, as your employees may also wish to encourage your positive behaviour. They may feel a sense of appreciation for the work environment that you're cultivating, so they may wish to meet your work quality expectations in return. Ultimately, improved morale can develop positive feelings towards the company and make your employees more productive and efficient.

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How to be an empathetic leader

Empathy offers a wide variety of benefits to a company, but it's important for a leader to first decide to become an empathetic individual to encourage others to follow them. The following are practical methods you can implement in the workplace to become an empathetic leader:

1. Practise active listening

Active listening is a process in which you ensure that you're paying close attention to the thoughts that your conversation partner is sharing. This can include fully understanding their point, recognising the emotions they feel about the topic and having a meaningful response to the information. This process is active because you can make a conscious effort to glean as much information out of the conversation as possible, which can encourage your conversation partner to offer meaningful thoughts.

Active listening can help you learn more about how your employees feel about their work and if they have any concerns about it. If possible, you could try to offer viable solutions to their problems so they understand that you're truly interested in helping them improve their work. You could even commit certain details to memory if they may become relevant later. Then later, you could address the topic to that employee to help them realise that you're genuinely listening to what they have to say. This can also help improve morale and communication in the workplace.

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2. Offer constructive criticism rather than blame

Often, employees may feel hesitant to address issues that they're encountering in the workplace. This could be because they're concerned that their employers may blame them for this issue, so they may ignore these potential problems. If you want an employee to be honest about their own shortcomings or about the shortcomings of the company's workflow, you can contextualise your comments as constructive criticism. Constructive criticism focuses on how the employee can improve, which benefits both them and the company. Using positive, affirming language can help your employee feel more comfortable with the discussion.

3. Respect different viewpoints

Running a company typically involves facilitating discussions between a large variety of people. As such, every employee could offer a different viewpoint on the company and on one another. Having a variety of viewpoints can be a great asset to the company's potential improvement, as you can reference many different perspectives on the same topic. This confluence of ideas can result in more innovation while simultaneously helping your employees feel appreciated.

You can respect different viewpoints by allowing any employee to share their perspective freely. You can do this by offering multiple forms of communication, both anonymous and in-person, and by developing a positive work environment that encourages constructive criticism. You can also encourage sharing diverse viewpoints by hiring a diverse set of people from many different backgrounds. Each of these people may have a unique perspective to offer, and you could provide them with a place to share those ideas in the workplace.

Related: What Is Leadership Communication? (Definition and Examples)

4. Encourage a culture of meaningful participation

An important aspect of encouraging empathy from a leadership position is creating infrastructure that supports your ideas. If you want your employees to feel comfortable sharing their constructive criticism, you can ensure that they receive positive feedback for doing so. You can provide your employees with tangible evidence that you and other professionals in leadership positions are reflecting on their ideas and want to hear more of them.

Consider creating a company blog or newsletter that publishes any questions or concerns that your employees have, including responses that you provide to their concerns. If they're asking for a particular change in workflow, you could offer them a rough timeline on when you're implementing those changes. By engaging with their concerns in a public way, you could also encourage other employees to share their thoughts.

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