Good Leadership Is an Act of Empathy

Good Leadership Is an Act of Empathy

I do not ask the wounded person how he feels. I myself become the wounded person. -Walt Whitman

With the COVID-19 pandemic transforming our lives at every level, the pandemic has led leaders to have an important epiphany — In these uncertain and highly stressful times, empathy and compassion are critical to building an equitable and all-inclusive workplace and set the stage for business recovery. The disorienting effects of COVID-19 on our daily lives — from work-life blur to social isolation to mental health challenges to family health issues to competing for personal priorities all add to the complexity of work-life balance and workplace success.

In such circumstances, demonstrating highly visible and compassionate leadership becomes crucial than ever. However, during a time of crisis, leadership mostly tends to adopt a command-and-control style since leaders and managers are in perpetual crisis management mode, struggling with layoffs, remote work technology, market woes, and a range of other frustrating disruptions. While this may be effective temporarily, it may not be successful in a crisis such as the COVID-19 pandemic — special times require special considerations.

According to a survey conducted by the Workforce Institute at UKG, nearly 29% of employees globally wished their organization had acted with more empathy during the COVID-19 response. It is nearly one out of every three employees. In another survey from Gallup, less than half of employees (45 percent) feel strongly that their employer cares about their well-being.

This alienates most employees, hampers motivation, and stifles creativity. Leaders make decisions that are good for the business, but often, they fail to understand that what’s good for the business actually means doing what’s right for employees. The traditional approach of driving business at any cost and being hard on employees to achieve results is passé. Today’s leaders need to tap into other motivators to get desired results and inspire the best performance from their employees and this is linked to a large extent to ‘Empathy’.

The benefits of empathetic leadership have long been known. Numerous studies show that in a business-as-usual environment, empathetic and compassionate leaders perform better and foster more loyalty and engagement by their teams. A study from the University of Michigan and Cornell University found that empathetic leaders foster a greater level of morale, particularly when employees are suffering a hardship. It all begins with simplest words and gestures, a little reassurance, compassionate listening, creating and fostering psychologically safe spaces, especially when employees are working remotely and unable to physically interact, and a conscious effort to validate people’s fear and confusion all go a long way.

Increasing empathy can help leaders by:

  • Create a more loyal, engaged, and productive team
  • Treat the people the way they want to be treated
  • Understand people’s unique needs
  • Resolve conflict by integrating diverse perspectives
  • Build trust and collaboration
  • Foster innovation and collaboration
  • Embrace diversity, and foster unity amongst diverse people.

In his book, The Leader Habit, Martin Lanik talks about the specific behaviors that successful business leaders practice when showing empathy. For example, they frequently use caring phrases, such as “it’s important to me that we resolve your concerns,” or “I want to make sure that your needs are met.” Effective leaders also make it a point to acknowledge and name emotions to let others know that they are attentive to them and care about their well-being. They often call out emotions they observe by saying, “You seemed [happy/sad/worried/ disappointed] and I wonder if you’d like to talk about it.” Helping others label their emotions not only shows our caring for them, but it allows them to process their own emotions deeper and better cope with uncertainty.

How can leaders practice empathy?

Effective leaders also make it a point to acknowledge and name emotions to let others know that they are attentive to them and care about their well-being. Click To Tweet

Practice listening

Active listening is the most vital skill to increase empathy but it is more than just listening, it is responding with insight and awareness. To understand others, we must listen with open ears, open eyes, and an open heart. It means letting their stories flow, asking questions to show you care, and paying attention to the hidden emotions behind what’s being said.


Take the back seat

Let the other person drive. Don’t force the pace or focus. Follow their lead. Avoid judging or criticizing your employees for what they say. Create a safe space for trust and open communication.

Be fully present

When an empathetic leader speaks with someone, you’ll never catch them glancing at their phone or scanning the room, or checking the time. It’s simple: When someone is speaking, listen and focus all your energy on being there.

Leave judgment behind

Let go of right-and-wrong. Even when the feelings of others are in direct opposition to their own, empathetic leaders don’t judge. They don’t use their beliefs or thoughts to judge what the other person is telling them. They let go of their biases and allow themselves to be open to new perspectives.

Don’t give unsolicited advice

Some people are looking for help. Others just want to be listened to. Many people gain clarity while sharing their issues. Avoid the temptation to save the day. Don’t provide advice unless someone asks for it. Instead ask, “ What do you need from me? How can I help you?”


Encourage quiet voices

There are always two or three people who take over meetings by doing most of the talking. And then there are the quiet ones who for whatever reason never speak up as much. As a leader, encourage participation by providing quiet voices the opportunity to speak up. The simple act of encouraging the quiet ones will empower everyone around you.

Take a personal interest and offer to help

Empathetic leaders show genuine curiosity about the lives of those who work for them, and they show their interest by asking questions about people’s lives, their challenges, their families, their aspirations. It’s not professional interest but personal, and it’s the strongest way to build relationships.

To conclude, the reality of being a leader is that sometimes tough decisions need to be made during crises. However, this doesn’t mean that leaders should act with a stern, iron-fisted approach to leadership and management. Today, people want a different type of leader, a leader who doesn’t tell his/her subordinates to ‘pull up their socks’, instead they want a leader who is empathy-led and purposeful. Times are tough and the virus’s vast fallout demands a kinder, gentler approach. We’ll get through this together and emerge stronger. An empathetic leader’s optimism, positive outlook, and upbeat disposition will help others to believe it, too.


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