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Empathy in leadership: Perspective is the secret sauce


As a leader, it’s likely that a can-do, never-give-up attitude helped drive your success. It’s possible that a soft skill like empathy, which should be considered an essential skill in leadership, wasn’t ever on your radar. But empathy can have powerful results – for you, your employees and your business.

It’s all about perspective

To be empathetic, you need to go beyond caring for others – that’s what we call sympathy.

Empathy is the ability to experience the feelings of others and to see the situation from their perspective. And it’s a cornerstone of building trust among your team.

When it comes down to it, empathy is all about perspective.

A good way to tap into your empathetic side is to realize that not everyone shares your perspective. In any given situation, how the facts are interpreted and what’s deemed important can vary among your team.

Why empathy is important in business

When empathy is missing from your leadership equation, it can affect your business in ways you didn’t imagine.

Here’s a look at how empathy can either help or hinder in your business:

  • Engagement and productivity: When employees are appreciated and valued for their work, they tend to try harder and give discretionary effort.

    On the other hand, disengaged employees can create roadblocks and stop caring about their work. There’s more absenteeism, which can result in resentment from others who have to pick up the slack.

  • Hiring and retention: Engaged employees can be your best advertisement for new employees – singing your praises to others who might work for you and helping new hires understand your company culture.

    Conversely, when leadership is lacking, morale will suffer and employees will quit in waves.

  • Creativity and innovation: Employees who feel they can speak up, share ideas and be valued for their input are more willing to take chances to be innovative. It’s based on trust.

    If employees think you will reject or humiliate them when they speak up, they’ll keep their ideas to themselves. A stifled workforce tends to do what’s required to get by and little else.
  • Teamwork: Empathy that starts at the top gets passed down through the organization. It becomes a part of the fabric of the company – an expectation of how people are treated.

    When empathy is the rule, rather than the exception, your team members will work together knowing they’re understood and valued for the contributions they make.

Dealing with personality types

Your team is made up of individuals, not just place-fillers hired to get the job done.

Understanding your employees – and them understanding each other – begins with knowing your team isn’t made up of people just like you. (If it is, keep reading to find out why that may not be good thing.)

To determine the character traits of your team members, consider using one of a variety of personality assessments, which highlight an individual’s strengths and what they need from you to be successful.

Within any of those personality tests, you’ll discover various “types” of people: task-oriented, people-oriented, outgoing, introverted, feelings-oriented, facts-oriented, etc.

If you’re a task-oriented person, you might not understand why someone spends so much time talking about a project. You’d rather just get started. You know the objective, so just start, right?

The people-oriented person may need to talk something through, get input from others and take the pulse of the team before starting. It’s a foreign concept for the task master. But with empathy, you’re able to see and understand a perspective that may be vastly different from your own.

Once you know how your people are wired, it’s easier to integrate empathy into your leadership style. You can speak directly to their needs, making them feel understood and valued.

That’s the key right there: understood and valued.

Understanding and value

Great leaders create an environment of understanding and value for their people. They don’t just get their head, they capture their heart.

When an employee can come to you, discuss an issue and walk away feeling understood and valued, you’ve aced it.

Your employee’s takeaway from such a meeting? “My boss really gets me.”

In addition to tapping that person’s work expertise, you’ve developed a level of trust that can result in improved engagement and increased productivity.

Empathy in action

Imagine a scenario where your employee John comes to you with an issue that has been weighing on him for a few months.

Which conversation should you have?

John: Hey, I want to run something by you. The reports I get from Rebecca in IT never seem to have all of the information I need to move forward. It’s creating a lot more work on my part to chase things down, which makes it seem like I’m the bottleneck.

You (dismissively): Well, sometimes things like that happen.

(You can just imagine how deflating this would be to John.)

Or …

You (sympathetically): Yeah, this job can be really frustrating. I’m sorry about that. I bet Rebecca will figure it out and get better over time.

(John probably doesn’t feel like you heard him or care to help solve the problem.)

Or …

You (empathetically): I know that probably makes your job harder and causes unnecessary delays. I’m sorry about that. I will talk to Rebecca’s supervisor about how this is slowing the process. I understand how you feel. We will get this figured out.

(You’ve put yourself in John’s shoes, and he feels understood and valued.)

Empathy is the ability to create an environment where employees feel safe and empowered to share, knowing that you will understand and respect their point of view.

Certainly you can’t solve every problem. But, employees should leave your office feeling they’ve been heard.

Where empathy can go wrong

Empathy is rarely a bad thing. But empathy can get out of balance when everyone shares the same perspective.

A like-minded group may tend to empathize with each other about “faults” they see in others. One-sided empathy doesn’t allow for different personality types and work styles.

For example, if the leadership team is chock-full of “get-it-done-now” people, they might perceive a “people-oriented” employee as unwilling to take charge. In reality, that employee may just want to give others a chance to shine.

Because of a lack of soft skills – empathy and personality awareness – the leadership team doesn’t see that this employee’s strengths focus on team-building and inclusion.

Signs you may need more empathy

As a leader, you influence the emotions of your people. And emotions are a powerful driver of human behavior.

When your employees feel understood, it results in optimism and trust – and ultimately better performance.

So, how do you know where you fall on the empathy spectrum or if your management style needs a little tweaking? If you see yourself in some of these scenarios, consider whether a lack of empathy is a factor:

  • Your employees are tight-lipped in meetings, afraid to speak up for fear of being humiliated or rejected.
  • You’re focused more on the process and less about the outcome.
  • People avoid working on projects with you.
  • Your go-to move is to defend, stonewall, blame or use your position to quiet.
  • Your mantra is “my way or the highway.”
  • You’ve found yourself in a meeting wondering why everyone has to have their input.
  • You try to minimize someone’s concerns by using phrases such as, “Why would you even say that?” or “You shouldn’t think that way.”
  • You make a blanket statement of “Great job, everyone” at the end of a project without acknowledging specific contributions that led to success.

Here’s an example of how to avoid overarching praise and be specific: “Bethany did a great job keeping the project going and on schedule. Greg brought enthusiasm to the team and kept the energy up. Janet asked all the hard questions till we got it right. Jim took care of so many little details that we’ll never even know about so that everything ran smoothly. Thank you for a great experience.”

Get more on good leadership

If you’re looking for higher productivity, better retention, increased engagement and creativity that goes through the roof – take a look at whether you’re practicing empathy in leadership.

When you set up an environment that allows people to feel understood, great things can happen. For more on how to how to get the best from your people, download our free Insperity guide to leadership and management