Empathy is the Top Leadership Skill in Today’s World of Work

Empathetic leadership – or the ability to understand your employees’ feelings – is driving everything from performance and retention to innovation and business success.

Empathy is the Top Leadership Skill in Today’s World of Work
Editorial Team
May 19, 2022
Empathy is the Top Leadership Skill in Today’s World of Work

Empathy in the workplace has been a buzzword for some time now. But did you know that today, empathy is the Number 1 quality required in an effective leader? Numerous studies and publications (such as this one and this) say so. Empathy has quickly gone from a nice-to-have soft skill to a leadership imperative because it drives employee performance, satisfaction, engagement, retention, and innovation, and also contributes significantly to business success.

Empathetic leadership has assumed a new importance because people want to be understood more than ever before, especially by their leaders. People are under immense stress today, in large part due to Covid-19 and its unprecedented impact on their health, finances, and personal and professional lives. This has led many to re-evaluate the place work holds in their lives, quit the workforce in the millions – a phenomenon that has been called the Great Resignation – and leave behind a gaping shortage of talent. Organizations fighting for survival in such turbulent times need to switch to a more situational leadership style that can better adapt to the changing work environment. That’s where empathetic leadership comes in.

Empathy is the answer to all workplace woes, research suggests. In the United States, 89% of employees say empathy makes for better leadership, while 88% believe empathetic leadership inspires positive workplace change, 87% say it builds trust, and 85% say it makes them more productive, according to the 2021 EY (Ernst & Young) Empathy in Business Survey. On the flipside, around half of the surveyed workers say they quit a job in the past because their boss wasn’t empathetic to their struggles at work (54%) or at home (49%). Similarly, a 2021 survey by the Society for Human Resource Management (SHRM) quotes 90% of US workers as saying that empathy is vital to a healthy work culture.

Check out Learnit’s wide range of Empathy workshops.

What is empathy, and how is it different from sympathy?

Empathy is the ability to understand and feel compassion for what another person is experiencing by trying to put yourself in their shoes. The understanding you gain from practicing empathy helps you respond appropriately to the other person’s thoughts, feelings, ideas, and opinions. Empathy is different from sympathy, which is simply showing understanding for another’s experience from your own perspective and not theirs.

What does empathetic leadership look like?

It could be as simple as a team leader acknowledging that a team member has a family emergency and needs time off to deal with it. It could be a manager mediating between two co-workers experiencing friction in the way they work and helping them reach a suitable resolution. Leading with empathy does not mean being soft and a “pushover”. Rather, it requires commitment to help another person even when it is not convenient.

Experts often warn against falling into the “empathy trap”. Empathy, they warn, can cloud your judgment or lead to bias, resulting in incorrect decision making. However, they also say this risk should not discourage leaders from taking up empathetic leadership. That is because empathetic leadership has many positive outcomes.

The benefits of leading with empathy

  • Happy, engaged, and loyal staff: Employees who feel that their managers are willing to accomodate their personal and professional requirements are more likely to be happy to come to work and have a long stint with the organization. In the EY survey, 88% of the respondents say empathetic leadership generates staff loyalty while 79% believe it decreases employee turnover. Similarly, of the 889 US workers surveyed by the non-profit Catalyst, 76% say they feel engaged with an empathetic boss while only 32% feel the same way with an unempathetic boss.
  • Increased productivity, better performance: Happier, more engaged employees perform better on the job. By providing a supportive work environment, empathetic leaders help their team members focus on their duties and responsibilities and function optimally. This, in turn, ensures greater productivity and profitability for the business as well. It’s no wonder that 90% of US employees believe empathetic leadership improves worker productivity.
  • Brighter spark of innovation: When a person works in an environment that allows them to speak up, participate, and have a greater say in the work their team does, they are very likely going to be more innovative – whether it is presenting new ideas or coming up with novel approaches to reaching a stated goal. In the Catalyst survey, employees with highly empathic senior leaders (61%) say they are often or always innovative at work compared to those with less empathic senior leaders (13%).
  • Strong relationships: Empathetic leadership leads to strong emotional connections with team members. That’s not all. Empathetic leaders also encourage those around them to form strong relationships with each other. This creates a healthy network of workplace relationships where stakeholders communicate with each other effectively and face fewer problems adjusting or adapting to each other.
  • Effortless teamwork: You cannot lead a team effectively without empathy. By creating a nurturing space where every voice and opinion counts, empathetic leaders encourage cooperation among team members. Because they feel valued, team members are more likely to be invested in the team’s goals and work cohesively to achieve them.
  • Work-life integration: Empathy is a leadership quality that helps managers embrace not just the employee but the person as a whole. Employers and leaders need to remember that the pandemic upended people’s lives in unexpected ways and they must understand, respect, and empathize with their employees’ new life circumstances. Not just that, employers and leaders also have a duty to make it possible for employees to better integrate their work and personal lives. Employees believe that having an empathetic boss gives them a better chance of balancing their professional and personal obligations.
  • More inclusive workforce: Empathetic leadership is a strong advocate for diversity, equity and inclusion (DE&I) in the workplace, says the previously mentioned SHRM study. “Empathy is what enables people to work cooperatively and effectively with others who have very different experiences, preferences, styles, and opinions,” says Johnny C Taylor Jr, SHRM’s president and CEO. Additionally, the study by Catalyst – which campaigns for more women in leadership positions – provides strong evidence of this positive outcome of empathetic leadership. It says that when managers show low empathy, only 22% of men and 9% of women experience inclusion. But with managers who show high empathy, that number goes up to 42% for both men and women. This finding is crucial given that our current leaders must learn to work well with people from diverse cultures, ethnicities, countries, and backgrounds.

Learnit’s Diversity, Equity and Inclusion classes can give you the leadership quality you need to work more effectively with complex cultural and individual differences.

3 ways to master empathetic leadership

It is often said that empathy is an innate trait – you’re either born with it, or not. But it is also true that empathy is a skill that can be learned, cultivated, practiced, and perfected. Mastering these three skills can help you lead with empathy:

1. Active listening

To show empathy, leaders need to become good listeners. Good listening skills are fast losing out to information overload and shortened attention spans. But managers must remember that effective listening is key to keeping communication lines open and healthy. In the workplace, people want to be heard. When they know their managers are listening to them, they are assured that their views and ideas are being respected. This builds trust. Active listening – also called empathetic listening – is one of the most important skills in an empathetic leader’s arsenal. Being an active listener means listening attentively to another’s inputs and responding with encouragement and support rather than advice and criticism. It requires you to ask the right questions to dig deeper and check in with your colleagues often to let them know that you are invested in the conversation. Active listening also means refraining from being judgmental or forming hasty responses. Naturally, an empathetic listener is interested not only in their staff’s professional inputs but also their personal situations. Not all people are free with their words. But practicing active listening can help leaders pick up non-verbal cues.

Improve your leadership qualities with Learnit’s wide range of Active Listening workshops – from Make Listening Your Superpower to Give and Receive Feedback.

2. Having difficult conversations

Over the course of their careers, leaders are bound to experience conversations they’d rather not have – for example, those centered around controversial topics such as racial and social inequality, or those whose outcomes they simply cannot predict. However, the ability to handle difficult conversations is one of the top five qualities employees look for in an empathetic leader. Great leadership is all about being able to not just have difficult conversations but to make those constructive. Unempathetic leaders risk being hung up on their own views and unwilling to listen to others. But empathetic leaders have the active listening skills to hear and understand the other person’s perspective. They are patient even when conversations go in unexpected directions and are responsive rather than resistant. By practicing empathy, leaders learn to deal with conflict so that they can turn debate into dialogue and prevent disagreements from escalating.

Learnit’s Dealing with Conflict workshop is a great resource for managers who wish to turn conflict into productivity.

3. Emotional intelligence

Emotional intelligence – defined as “the ability to understand and manage your own emotions, as well as recognize and influence the emotions of those around you” – is a core skill requirement for empathetic leadership. Leaders with emotional intelligence have high social awareness, which enables them to recognize others’ emotions and understand their feelings and perspectives. This, in turn, makes them better at communicating and collaborating with others. It also enhances their people management skills. Emotional intelligence empowers leaders to read a room or the underlying dynamics of a sticky situation. It helps them express their own emotions in a way that helps and motivates others.

Learnit’s Strengthen Your Relationships class can help you master social awareness and develop empathy.

4 ways to practice empathetic leadership 

Most organizations believe they are empathetic to their employees, but their efforts might be falling short. In the EY survey, 46% of respondents dismissed their company’s efforts at empathetic leadership as dishonest. Here are four ways to show empathy that are relevant to todays’ world of work:

1. Watch out for burnout

This is imperative, given that the workforce is going through its most stressful period yet. The pandemic has led to a mental health decline in 42% of US workers, according to a Qualtrics survey. Another study says the percentage of employees experiencing burnout went up from 34% in 2020 to 44% in 2021. A third study – the previously mentioned Catalyst survey – highlights the impact empathetic leadership can have on employee well-being. It says that even with an empathetic boss, 54% of female employees suffered high levels of pandemic-related burnout. But that figure went up to 63% for women with unempathetic bosses.

Leaders need not be mental health experts to care for their team members’ emotional well-being. These simple steps can go a long way in creating a culture of empathy:

  • Checking in with team members frequently to see how they are doing and if they are struggling with anything, whether at home or at work.
  • Asking about their needs and taking the required action to address those needs.
  • Setting clear expectations and goals.
  • Communicating clearly and regularly.    

More than half (58%) of US workers are comfortable with their manager proactively asking them about their mental health, while 41% want their manager to proactively ask them, says the Qualtrics study. However, while looking out for their team’s well-being, leaders must not forget to practice self-care – eat healthy, get plenty of sleep, take time off, etc. – so that they don’t end up hurting their own mental health due to the stresses of their job.     

2. Be willing to help with personal problems

A traditional leader is one who draws a sharp line between professional and personal matters. But in today’s hybrid workplace, the lines between work and life are blurring. To keep up with the changing times, leaders must acknowledge that their team members are juggling personal and professional obligations at the same time. With this acknowledgement must come the willingness to help employees with personal problems, even when it is inconvenient to do so.

3. Show your vulnerable side

Empathetic leaders aren’t afraid to share their own emotions and experiences to demonstrate that they understand and relate with the life circumstances of others. By opening themselves up, they encourage others to do the same, thereby building trust and an emotional connection. This brings about a better understanding of the needs, goals, and struggles of team members. Armed with this knowledge, leaders can use their skills to recommend solutions to problems and offer assignments that better suit each employee’s interest.

Improve your leadership skills with Learnit’s Leveraging Empathy in Internal Relationships workshop.

4. Acknowledge success

Along with the ability to have difficult conversations, fairness is a top trait employees look for in an empathetic leader. And acknowledging the success of one’s team members is a great way of demonstrating both fairness and empathy. Congratulating a team member on a job well done, recommending another for a promotion, or giving out a bonus for meeting a goal – it doesn’t take a great deal of effort for leaders to acknowledge the hard work of their team members. But such small gestures have a much larger impact because employees who receive the recognition they deserve are more likely to work harder, be more productive, and stay with the company for a long time.                 

Finally, research suggests that managers who show empathy towards those they lead also earn the respect of their own leaders, who view them as better performers. That’s just one more reason why individuals in leadership roles ought to embrace empathy.