Leading with Empathy: An Essential Skill for New Normal Leadership

Empathy is not a quality that you may initially associate with leadership, particularly in competitive and fast-paced corporate environments. After all, on the surface the two worldviews are seemingly incongruous. However, empathetic leadership allows us to understand the needs of others and be cognizant of their emotions and overall wellbeing. In today’s workforce, having this person-centric mindset is crucial to the successful leader.

Uncertain times call for unparalleled leadership, and the entire human family has experienced a great deal of that of late. Difficult situations, such as the ongoing COVID-19 pandemic and systemic racism prove how valuable an empathetic leader is to those the leader serves, the team as a whole, and the entire organization overall. Empathy, it turns out, is a key quality to maintain productivity, reduce turnover, improve team morale, and increase employee engagement.

What is Empathy?

Empathy is simply defined as the ability to understand and share the feelings of others. Empathy calls on us to put ourselves in another person’s shoes and imagine what they must be feeling and contending with due to a particular circumstance or event. Empathy asks a person to relate to another person’s emotional experience entirely, which is one way that empathy differs from sympathy.

Empathy expects awareness and understanding of the full spectrum of human emotions while sympathy requires a grasp of suffering alone. Like empathy, having a greater sense of self-awareness is an essential component of emotional intelligence and effective leadership. UCLA Professor of Psychiatry, Dan Siegel, describes this awareness as mindsight, which incorporates the capacity for both insight and empathy.

The Role of Empathy in Leadership

The American workforce once placed a premium on an employee’s ability to leave their personal lives at the door, but not anymore. The pandemic has driven home the point that uncertainty is a certainty and what happens within our personal lives cannot be separated completely from our professional lives.

Amid the ever-changing chaos, teams need empathetic leaders who will deeply understand and see the relevance of the circumstances that impact all of us. Leaders must be able to tune into and experience the feelings of others to acknowledge things from their perspective.

Those who lead with empathy are often strong communicators who foster an environment of empowered employees who feel safe expressing their stress or concern. By opening up the workspace to new thoughts, ideas, and perspectives, a shift occurs to a “we” mentality and the culture begins to breed inclusivity.

With an “all in this together” dynamic firmly in place, leaders are better able to instill best practices that drive productivity, create synergy, and boost morale. This is important for acquiring and retaining talent, increasing engagement, and improving performance across the organization.

In practice, leadership that either lacks or exudes empathy creates vastly different experiences for team members. Leaders who lack empathy may:

  • Take over projects that they feel are being managed improperly,
  • Come across as cold, distant, and disconnected from their people,
  • Micromanage team members regardless of their capacity, and
  • Fail to actively listen and respond to team member concerns or challenges.

On the other hand, leaders with empathy tend to:

  • Have lower turnover on their teams,
  • Receive positive evaluations from their staff,
  • Demonstrate active listening in all interactions with their staff,
  • Allow team members the autonomy needed to complete tasks and projects, and
  • Look for ways to advance the skillset, achievement, and productivity of team members.

Leading on an empathetic level means understanding your employees as individuals with different character traits and helping them understand each other on the same level. Once you have a better grasp of how each individual on your team is wired, you’ll have an easier time recognizing when there are dips in productivity and knowing when to extend a supportive hand.

Part of the significance of incorporating empathy into your leadership is to be able to provide emotional guidance and encouragement that helps everyone develop personally and professionally.

Mindfulness and Meditation Help Enhance Empathy

Although there is a growing interest in empathy as an essential leadership quality, teaching empathy or incorporating training to increase this skill is still lacking. However, contemplative practices such as mindfulness and meditation are an effective means to enhance your capacity for empathy and compassion and these practices can be implemented by leaders at every level.

Today, many leaders are intentionally creating workplace cultures of care and clemency, which ought not to be viewed as a soft skill that each individual might or might not possess. There is more to it because empathy is a necessary leadership quality.

While researching contemplative practices and their impact on leadership, I interviewed the CEO of an organization with 500 employees. She spoke of compassion as the “number one” quality that emerged from her meditation practice and transformed her leadership. She and others I interviewed spoke of “leading from a place of empathy” as well as being able to respond to their leadership team and employees “more compassionately.”

Another one of my interviewees shared a core principle for his company, which states that “mindfulness builds the capacity for self-regulation, empathy, connection with self, others, and the universe.”

The importance of empathy to effective leadership is also emphasized in the literature:

The contemplative leader is aware that wisdom must accompany compassion when she takes action in the world. She needs to keep a soft belly while maintaining a strong back, so she remains open to feeling but has the resolve to face the challenges she encounters. (Nolan, 2013)

Mindfulness, meditation, and spiritual healing have been found to increase prosocial behaviors, including compassion, altruism, and empathy. Studies have shown that mindfulness practices are a causal factor in improving empathy. The act of regular self reflection can allow individuals to improve their emotional self awareness and gain emotional self control.

Emotional self control can help us understand and be compassionate to ourselves, which we can then extend to understand the thoughts and feelings of those around us. This naturally leads to  more effective, connected, and collaborative relationships with those we serve.

Empathy is an inherent human instinct, but the power of empathy comes from the intentional cultivation of this quality in your leadership. It’s something to commit to daily to help foster more effective leadership within yourself and to nurture the next generation of leaders.