Can you truly be an empathetic leader?


Empathy is the top quality for leadership, according to research.

It’s not difficult to see why as it has many benefits for leaders and their respective businesses.

Why is Empathy important?
Leaders are able to constructively influence their internal and external stakeholders – understanding your stakeholder’s needs and their perspective without judgement or bias allows you as a leader to clarify your message to your audience and in turn negotiate a constructive outcome
Leaders are able to manage, mediate and prevent team conflict. Conflict resolution and prevention is pivotal to maintaining positive employee morale which impacts team performance, business survival and growth.
Leaders can recruit and retain the best talent for their business, increasing competitiveness, revenue and profitability
Leaders can promote diversity of thought and encourage innovation, increasing business competitiveness
But can leaders be truly empathetic?

Defining empathy
Sympathy vs empathy – what’s the difference?

Sympathy and empathy tend to be used interchangeably but there is a clear difference.

Sympathy is when you try to understand the other person’s perspective but are unable to without being subjective or getting too involved.

Empathy is about understanding the other person’s perspective without bias, judgement or getting too involved.

Let’s break the empathy definition down:

There are four different types of empathy (Ekman and Golman) – some can get too involved

Types of Empathy
Cognitive – Understand the emotional states of the other
Affective – Feel what the other is feeling
Compassionate – Intend to help
Motor – And subconsciously respond to what you understand and feel
As complex beings and individuals, not every leader will fit neatly into one of these categories; perhaps you need a combination to be the ideal empathetic leader.

Also, in my view, affective and motor empathy types are sympathy types and not empathy types.

Affective empaths are likely to get too involved and motor empaths may struggle with objectively and actively responding to situations.

The ideal empathetic leader could be a combination of a cognitive and compassionate empath who doesn’t just have the inclination to help but actively responds to situations.

However, what if a leader has tried to understand the other person’s perspective, discussed and implemented alternative solutions to help, but the situation doesn’t improve.

Is it acceptable to draw the line or try an alternative tactic?

Of course, this depends on a variety of factors:

Is the employee willing to accept additional help? How have they responded previously? Has any progress been made? Was the initial goal realistic?
Does the employee know their role, remit and how they fit with the vision? Has the vision been communicated to them? Have they had an opportunity to ask questions, raise concerns?
Do they have their own beliefs or judgements that are not allowing the situation to improve?
Are there any misunderstandings that need clarifying? Have their concerns been truly heard? Or as a leader were you listening to respond?
Are extraneous factors having an impact?
What impact would the situation have on the business if it’s not resolved?
Unconscious bias and inclusive, empathetic leadership
Unconscious bias exists so can leaders be truly empathetic?

Human beings can also be inherently judgemental, even if they don’t mean to be

Why is it important to mitigate the risks associated with unconscious bias?

To recruit, retain and get the most out of your best talent for your business; to be competitive

Up to 40% of performance is determined by the quality of people’s relationships within their companies (Harvard and MIT)

So, how can you be more inclusive in your relationships with your people?

Identify in your recruitment process where unconscious bias may occur (on your website, social media, press releases, application form, selection process, vetting process); what information are you communicating and how?
Application tracking systems, double-blind interview methods can also be useful strategies to mitigate unconscious bias during recruitment and selection – of course, cost, people resources and time are key considerations here in terms of appropriateness

Identify in your communication with your team where unconscious bias may occur:
– Are your performance reviews developmental and constructive?

– How do you decide on who receives a promotion?

– Are meetings inclusive? Can employees be open, honest, safe (both to take risks and to have a voice)?

Leaders can be empathetic to an extent but more needs to be done to mitigate the risks of unconscious bias and judgement during the recruitment and selection process and during interactions with key stakeholders. Leaders may also benefit from having open, honest and constructive conversations with a trusted contact, coach or mentor who is able to offer an impartial perspective on situations where the leader is struggling to maintain an empathetic position.

Career Inspiration works with aspiring empathetic leaders who need help with progression planning for their future leaders and career changers looking to work for organisations where empathetic leadership is a priority.

Book your right-fit call here: