What is empathetic leadership? And why does it matter?

Adelle Harrington Adelle Harrington Vice President, KellyOCG EMEA

I’m not a natural empath.

That probably seems like a strange way to start a blog on empathy, but it’s something I’ve recognised in myself (and I think my family and friends would probably agree!). This doesn’t mean I think empathy is unimportant – quite the opposite – I think empathy is an essential trait for great leaders. But it does mean that I’ve worked mindfully and deliberately on expanding my empathy skills throughout my career.

I don’t think I’m all that unusual – everyone falls at a different point on the empathy scale. But whether you’re a natural empath or someone who has to work a little harder on this key skill, it’s vital to inject genuine empathy into work interactions – particularly in leadership roles. In this blog, I explore what it means to be an empathetic leader, the benefits of bringing empathy to work, and how people at every stage of their leadership journey can strengthen their empathy skills.

What is an empathetic leader?

Empathetic leaders devote time and energy to understanding people and what drives and inspires them. And this means digging a little deeper than everyday work wants and needs. A truly empathetic leader builds meaningful connections across their organisational community and uses this understanding to grow trust that shapes better and more productive working relationships. Not by digging blindly into people’s personal information – but by making space to connect on a human level. Empathetic leadership is a dynamic approach where leaders shift their responses and leadership styles to best fit the individual they are interacting with. Taking an interest in the people who surround us sounds like basic common sense, but it’s a soft skill that’s often overlooked as many leaders face pressure to achieve more, faster.

Why does empathetic leadership matter?

Empathetic leadership is a very human style of leadership, but it can have a significant and positive impact on business results and performance. Here are some of the most powerful ways that empathetic leadership can impact organisations and people:

It increases cultural alignment

Leaders set the cultural tone for the organisations they serve through their behaviour. Empathetic leaders foster empathetic behaviours, which can lead to better and more open working relationships, more frequent collaboration, and even higher levels of creativity. A Catalyst survey found that 61% of people with highly empathic senior leaders say they are often or always being innovative at work, while 76% of people with highly empathic leaders report often or always being engaged – compared to just 32% of people with less empathic leadership.

It boosts performance

One of the most challenging elements of leadership is addressing underperformance, particularly in situations where this performance has a negative impact on clients and customers. It’s easy to go into those situations fuelled by frustration and issuing demands, but this often leads to people quickly putting up barriers. Instead, by taking a breath and choosing an empathetic approach, leaders can get to the root cause of performance issues and engage individuals more effectively to get things back on track.

It fosters better work-life balance

The Catalyst survey mentioned above found that people felt they could build a better work-life balance when working with empathetic leaders – 86% said they could better juggle personal, family, and work commitments with a leader who displayed better empathy. This makes sense when we consider that empathetic leaders evaluate the complex needs of the workers they serve, rather than taking a single ‘my way is the right way’ approach. As industries navigate big discussions around hybrid and remote work – empathy is an essential tool in shaping successful working styles for everyone.

How can you nurture empathetic leadership skills?

You probably want to be a more empathetic leader. But where do you start? Especially if you’re someone who struggles to bring their empathetic side to work.

I believe it begins with making time to connect with people across a business. Ask people-centric questions and really listen to the answers – even when you’re busy and feel like you need to jump straight into the work portion of the conversation. Just a few minutes of human connection can break down barriers and foster those powerful connections that lead to better performance, innovation, and business results. I’ve found this process has more impact face-to-face – so even when I’m working remotely, I switch on my camera to show that I’m fully present and engaged with whoever I’m speaking to.

I also think that it’s difficult to be an empathetic leader when you aren’t bringing your full self to work. There are many reasons for this, but feeling negative, anxious, or overwhelmed can remove our capacity to really understand what people are saying or feeling. Leaders need to reflect and check in with themselves often to ensure they are bringing their full empathetic selves to work. Speaking with a mentor, taking time to reflect on their working style, and making space to step back and decompress can empower leaders to maintain empathy when life and work pile up.
Empathetic leaders also have to consider how they adjust their approach to a crowd – after all, many interactions will be with a group or even an entire workforce. It’s impossible in this scenario to respond directly to individual needs and wants. Here, it’s important to engage genuinely, openly, and sensitively to more general challenges, and to always make space for feedback and interaction.

These are some of the key traits of empathetic leaders that stood out during my own empathy journey:

  • They make time and space for people-centric questions
  • They connect face-to-face (virtually or in-person)
  • They bring their full selves to work
  • They adjust their approach to the group or individual in front of them
  • Every interaction feels like a conversation – not a lecture

One last note on empathy – as a woman in leadership, I find there is sometimes pressure to live up to a particular stereotype of ‘strong leadership’, to be ‘hard’ and ‘no-nonsense’ – essentially the opposite of an empathetic leader. It’s easy to see how this stereotype gained traction; women at a senior level in many businesses and industries often find themselves outnumbered by male colleagues. And these environments can create an atmosphere where women feel pressured to behave in a traditionally ‘masculine’ way to have their voices heard. Luckily, this picture is changing, and I’m very lucky to work in an organisation with strong and empathetic female leaders at every level. In fact, the idea that strong leadership = hard, unemotional leadership is best left in the past. Empathetic leadership is at the centre of modern, human-centric leadership and it creates better outcomes for workers, leaders, and businesses.

How do you inject empathy into your leadership style? I’d love to hear about your experiences with empathetic leadership.


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