Empathy: An Important Leadership Skill


Let’s be honest, when it comes to the keys for successful leadership, empathy is rarely included in the list. Demonstrating empathy can be difficult for some leaders. It takes time and effort. Yet, instilling a sense of empathy in how you lead those under your care can offer three distinct advantages.

  1. You can better understand the cause behind poor employee performance.
  2. You can help struggling employees improve and grow.
  3. You can build and develop relationships with those you lead.

Quite often, people confuse empathy with sympathy. Sympathy essentially implies a feeling of recognition of another’s suffering, while empathy is often characterized as the ability to “put oneself into another’s shoes”. Empathy is a deeper emotional experience. Sadly, many leaders never make it to this level.

In the May, 2013 Forbes article, “Why Empathy is the Force that Moves Business Forward,” the author shared the following thoughts on empathy in today’s workplace;

“Though the concept of empathy might contradict the modern concept of a traditional workplace—competitive, cutthroat, and with employees climbing over each other to reach the top— the reality is that for business leaders to experience success, they need to not just see or hear the activity around them, but also relate to the people they serve.”

True empathy combines understanding both the emotional and the logical rationale that goes into every decision.

Empathy can open doors and the lack of empathy can close them.

Empathy in many ways is a communication skill. Empathy can allow you to sense the emotions of your employees and respond accordingly. The lack of empathy results in a poor sense of communication that fails to understand the perspective of the employee.

In the early 90’s, I was working as the Assistant Manager at a very high-end apartment community.  The owner of this particular community visited quite often, as well as developers who were hoping to build in the immediate area. More than anything, I felt like a tour guide.

Here is my story…

I received a call from my mother telling me that my brother had died of a heart-attack. I was posting rent on my computer when I received the call, and I was clearly in shock and upset.  Just a few weeks earlier, my father had passed away as a result of a heart complication. The moment I hung up the telephone, the owner of the community opened my door, obviously seeing that I was upset, he proceeded to drill me on apartment availability. As you can imagine, I was clearly not my typical “Mary Poppins self”—he noticed. He stormed into my manager’s office and proceeded to complain to her about how I did not acknowledge him with enough enthusiasm etc. The driving force behind my emotion was not important to him, “business is business,” he stated. I am not making this stuff up!

Shortly after his visit, a group of apartment developers entered the office. I pulled myself together and greeted them. It was pretty obvious that I had been crying. They showed their concern by asking me what had happened. I shared a few details. They empathized with me. I toured these men for over an hour, answering every question they tossed my way. The next day they sent me a beautiful bouquet of flowers, thanking me for the time I spent with them, and once again acknowledging my grief. The icing on the cake was when I received a hand written note from the president of their company, for no other reason than to share some encouraging words. Wow! It has been over twenty-one years since this event took place. I still have the letter.      

Can you guess who opened the door and who closed it?  

As expressed in my personal story, one key trait of empathetic leaders is their ability to listen attentively to those around them. One way they do this is by paying close attention to both the verbal and non-verbal cues that are a part of everyday communication.

I truly believe that leaders are responsible for building effective teams and enabling employees to do their best work. To achieve this, they need to cultivate empathy, or the ability to imagine himself in another’s shoes.

While empathy is important, don’t mistake it for niceness. The best leaders employ empathy when and where it’s needed, not as a plea for approval. Great leaders are empathetic but have the backbone to make the tough decisions, too.

If you could do one thing to create a more empathetic workplace, what would it be?  Here is one idea:

If you have regular staff meetings, allot 5-10 minutes for everyone to quickly share what is happening with them—personal and professional. The more you do this, the more open employees will become. You can use this knowledge you gain to engage with employees and let them know you care.

Empathy engenders loyalty.

Maria Lawson
Vice President of Training and Development
Ellis Partners in Management Solutions