Article · 6-minute read

The Importance of Empathy in Leadership

By Dominic Goodacre – 19th June 2024 

empathy

Noun

the ability to share someone else’s feelings or experiences by imagining what it would be like to be in that person’s situation1

In a leadership context, empathy is that vital piece around understanding the needs of team members and being aware of their feelings and thoughts. It encompasses emotional empathy (feeling what others feel), cognitive empathy (understanding their perspective), and empathic concern (caring about their wellbeing).

Put simply, it’s a vital leadership skill that has a hugely positive impact on performance and organizational culture.

Why Does It Matter?

When managers demonstrate empathy, they enhance trust and collaboration within their teams. Building stronger relationships with employees, and therefore a positive working environment, has repeatedly been shown to foster a culture of trust, respect and commitment. Indeed, research has suggested that many people place more value on this than their salary, with 8 out of 10 surveyed reporting that they would prefer to work in a happy environment and get on with colleagues than earn a high wage.2

Given, for most people, five days out of a seven-day week are spent working, it’s no wonder they want to feel seen, heard and valued.

Among workers who say their organization does not empathize with employees, 90% believe having leaders show more empathy would make a positive difference in their work life.

This includes improving their job satisfaction (52%), improving their job performance (39%), increasing their productivity (37%), improving mental health/levels of burnout (48%) and making them more loyal (41%).3

As we can see, a lack of empathy in leadership and decision making has a real-life impact on the physical and emotional wellbeing of staff.

Organizational benefits

So, we’ve established how an empathetic workplace, driven by senior leadership, improves the working lives of employees but what does that then mean for the organization as a whole? Well, it’s not just an arbitrary ‘nice-to-have’ that puts a few smiles on faces around the office; there’s a financial return that can be attributed to this as an environment of innovation and creativity is cultivated.

Individuals who feel valued and understood are far more likely to speak up and come forward with their original ideas, unique perspectives and solutions to challenges. Teams begin to communicate and collaborate better, productivity rockets – by 85% according to research by EY – and business goals are achieved more efficiently.

Both the organizational brand and the employer brand benefit as good products get to market more quickly and the workforce feel valued, knowing they’ve created real tangible impact. This can reduce employee turnover by 78%4, enable the development of strong talent and leadership pipelines, and help businesses build for an even stronger future, without having to regularly waste resources on a revolving door of disengaged employees.

A survey by McKinsey highlighted some fairly stark differences between why talent say they have decided to leave and why employers think talent is choosing to leave. This mismatch is solid evidence that many organizations are out of touch with their staff and aren’t appreciating the importance of relational elements, which are a key factor in employee turnover.

Diagram showing empathy in the workplace.

Developing Leaders With Empathy

Some people are naturally more empathetic than others but there are skills relating to empathy that can be learned and honed.

Communication skills are critical and, as such, are a great area for development. While commonly the focus on good communication is around how you speak to other people, here the essential part is really around how you respond to other people speaking to you.

There’s a multitude of facets to empathy but at the crux of it is the ability to listen to people; not just hearing what they’re saying but to actively listen.

As a leader, there are some simple actions you can take to improve your active listening that can soon become habitual with a bit of practice and self-awareness when you’re in conversation with employees.  

  • Ask open-ended questions to encourage deeper sharing of feelings and perspectives
  • Avoid interrupting
  • Maintain eye contact
  • Nod your head and/or use short verbal cues to show that you are actively listening

You will soon find that refining your communication skills will help develop empathy and your understanding of others’ perspectives, withholding any judgment you may have had previously.

Self-awareness is the nucleus of empathetic leadership

To fully understand others, it’s important to understand one’s self so, to really develop empathy, it’s crucial to go through a spot of self-reflection.

We all may consider ourselves to be somewhat self-aware but this isn’t particularly objective and often we’ll conflate perceptions and opinions with facts, leading to impaired judgment, bias and other outcomes not conducive with true empathy.

“When people are objectively self-aware, they are able to suspend judgment, thereby allowing them to receive information that conflicts with their beliefs and opinions, try to understand that information, and consider it in a fair manner.” 5

Mark B. Baer

Achieving truly objective self-awareness is difficult but the team at Saville Assessment have been working hard to build rigorous and robust solutions to help do so, based on decades of experience, research and data.

Organizations can implement these to help encourage self-reflection, uncover potential blind spots and dive deep with granular insight around an individual’s leadership potential, identifying areas in which their behavior is likely to have organizational impact or indeed carry risk, all just from one questionnaire completion.

Our Leadership Impact model is split into three areas –  Professional, People and Pioneering – so if you were looking to unlock the empathy piece, you would focus the lens on the ‘People’, and the three Impact areas sitting within that.

People

Organizational Commitment

Creating a shared sense of purpose; enhancing employee motivation; building organizational morale.

Successful Teams icon

Successful Teams

Building effective teams; attracting and developing talent; utilizing potential.

Communication icon

Communication

Delivering influential communication; building cross-functional/geographic communication; encouraging involvement and consultation.

Impact reporting helps individuals to gain greater depth of insight with the unique Wave ‘deep dives’, provides practical reflections to support leadership development and bridges the gap between behaviors and outcomes.

Leadership Impact Expert Selection Report on an iPad

The Leadership Risk model takes a different lens to these 3 Ps of leadership to consider potential unwanted influences or outcomes relating to misguided strengths, in order to help individuals understand how to manage the associated risks.

Together these frameworks provide really powerful information to help leaders increase their self-awareness and maximize the impact they have as a leader.

Leadership risk analytics on a laptop

The supplementary leadership superpower

One of the barriers to empathy being prioritized as a key characteristic of leadership is the fact that traditional approaches to leadership potential have often been quite restrictive.

Whilst, in isolation, behaviors associated with empathy such as ‘understanding’ and ‘getting to know people’ are not indicative of strong leadership potential, when included as part of a leadership potential equation alongside more typical behaviors such as ‘drive’ and ‘leading people’, the overall predictive validity of leadership potential increases.

Whilst this is also great news for fairness and DE&I (many of the more empathetic behaviors tend to be higher in females), it presents a really interesting finding for leadership in today’s landscape.

Looking beyond the traditional and combining behaviors into an overall model of potential, individuals who demonstrate the typical leadership behaviors and those associated with empathy make for even stronger leaders.

In Conclusion

Empathy in workplace leadership is more than a buzzword; it’s a critical factor for success. By understanding and connecting with team members, leaders can create a positive, collaborative environment that benefits both the individual and the organization.

However, developing empathy can be difficult and true objective self-reflection is even harder without the implementation of scientifically-validated self-report tools and an openness to feedback.

Our Leadership Development solution is a one-stop shop, encompassing Impact, Risk, 360 and our groundbreaking Leadership Potential dashboard, aligning development activity with organizational strategy.

Create diverse and representative leadership teams, mobilizing your talent for today’s challenges and tomorrow’s opportunities.

About the Author

Dominic Goodacre

Dominic Goodacre is the Content & Social Media Editor at Saville Assessment. You can connect with him on LinkedIn here.