Article · 5 minute read

Leadership Lessons - Where Should You be Focusing?

By Hannah Mullaney & Richard Williams7th February 2022

Strong leadership is key. Key for inspiring purpose. Key for an excellent employee experience. Key for organizational impact.

64% of organizations say changing their leadership requirements over the next three years is a priority – WTW.  

The work landscape is rapidly changing. In times of unparalleled change and uncertainty, it is more important than ever for organizations to have a future-focus on leadership development.

In this four-part series, we spotlight four crucial aspects of successful leadership development:

  • The value of empathy
  • The value of impact
  • Leading though uncertainty
  • Creating a High-Performing- Employee-Experience

    Empathy has always been a critical skill for leaders. As it increases in recognition against the backdrop of a new world of work, we start our series there.
The Value of Empathy

Research by EY found that 54% of workers left their previous workplace due to their boss not being empathetic to their struggles at work.

We generally think of empathy and compassion as positive traits in life, so it makes sense that this extends to the workplace. During the pandemic, organizations increasingly looked to their leaders for empathy. suggests that “Leaders need to become more skilled at discussing mental and personal health with their team members, not an area leadership development may have focused on before.”

Practicing empathy during times of uncertainty not only opens leader’s minds to what others might be experiencing, but can encourage trust and help employees feel supported to give their best; a  key driver of retention.

Empathy on its own is not enough…

When we look at individual behaviors, relating to empathy in isolation, they are often not predictive of leadership success. In some cases, they can be negatively correlated with outcomes and can get in the way of making difficult people decisions.

The behaviors that we see continuously predicting leadership success, regardless of organization or industry, are:

But empathy does matter

When we start to explore the effect of critical behavior combinations, the importance of empathy starts to shine through. What our research is telling us is that leaders who are able to do all of the above AND understand and empathise with others do better than those who just focus on the above.

The problem is that leaders who are strong on core leadership traits like Pursuing Goals, Taking Action and Directing People are also usually lower on empathy. This makes intuitive sense, but it means leadership development practitioners have a real task on their hands. They will need to put time and effort into developing these leaders as they are very unlikely to be able to do it on their own.  Step one is to get them to understand the power of empathy. Step two is then getting them to practice it.

5 top tips for practicing empathy:

Listen – this one may sound simple but listen fully to the other side of the conversation. Try to put your own thoughts and tasks aside for a moment and concentrate fully on what your team members are saying. If your team feels like what they are saying is being valued and that they can talk openly, this can lead to a more positive workplace.   

A study conducted by Faye Doell in 2003 showed that there are two types of listening: ‘listening to understand’ and ‘listening to respond.’ People who listen to understand are more empathetic in their approach and form better relationships, contributing to better employee engagement and experience. 

Resist the urge to think about what you are going to say while someone is speaking. Take the time to truly understand their meaning and respond accordingly. Others will take notice of this, helping to build trust and understanding. 

Learn to recognize bias – unconscious bias means that we often react without thinking. However, you should never ignore or dismiss how someone is feeling or what they are expressing because you view them a certain way or have a preconceived notion of how they think or may behave.

Slow down and take a measured approach. Our brains process millions of bits of information at once, so when we rush choices our brains rely on shortcuts – biases – to make quick decisions. You can lessen the risk of these biases decisions by slowing down and taking your time to draw your own conclusions. 

When facing critical decisions, ensure you invite colleagues or peers who can broaden your viewpoint and balance any hidden biases. Invite individuals representing other cultures and viewpoints for feedback and actively listen to it (see above). 

Work closely with your team – leaders should work closely with their team and understand the importance of team building. This means shadowing the people they work with, spending time in different departments, and understanding their workload and listening to their frustrations.

With more people currently working remotely, simple steps such as a scheduled weekly catch up call can help maintain regular contact and give people a chance to express any concerns they may have. 

According to a study by Queen’s University of Charlotte, around 75% of employers rate teamwork and collaboration as “very important,” meaning that it is crucial to high performing employee experience. 

A little goes a long way – small gestures can go a long way to creating the right work culture; smiling at people, offering to make them a cup of tea, remembering their names if they are in different departments, can all help make a difference to how others are feeling and help leaders develop a reputation as caring and approachable. 

Poor culture can lead to poor employee retention or disengaged and unmotivated employees, which in turn can impact the quality of service and ultimately your bottom line. While 15% of candidates have turned down job offers because they believe the company to have a poor or negative working culture (Ezra).

A poll of over 1,000 workers by Interact/Harris, highlights the importance of strong communication and effective leadership:

Open up – leaders should not be afraid to show their human side. You can’t expect coworkers to show vulnerability if you don’t open up yourself. Building a platform where employees are able to express their concerns and feel that these will be listened to and valued is conducive to a better working environment.

Harvard Business Review explains that new leaders especially should be willing to ‘tell their story’ to their team. This doesn’t mean giving a detailed account of your CV, more along the lines of explaining your background and the experience that makes you right for the role, which can go a long way to building trust.  

Find Out More

By focusing your leadership development on these crucial areas, you can nurture your talent and build leaders with values that align with your organizational goals; leaders who enhance the employee experience whilst driving transformation and delivering tangible results.

To learn more about our leadership assessments visit or email [email protected] to find out more about leadership consultancy services.