How important is empathy in the workplace? In your business, is it really such a significant part of being a “great leader”? As a leadership development coach, I know that empathy is important, but perhaps there’s more to it than we think.

Here’s both sides of the argument.

Empathy. It’s everywhere, or so it seems.

Read almost any analysis relating to current leadership skills, and you practically stumble over it. To lead, motivate and inspire, empathy is surely The Thing. For you, as a leader, the ability to empathise with those you manage and importantly, to demonstrate that you have this skill, is considered critical. And to be fair, I agree.

It really is.

But, in common with everything relating to the subtly nuanced world of humanity at work, this competency is multi-layered. You can see it through several sides of a prism, each angle giving a slightly different view when you hold it up to the light.

Let’s examine what empathy means, how it works, and to what extent it fits into the must-have series of skills you need to “get the job done”.


What is Empathy? How Close is It to Sympathy?

An obvious starting point, but it’s not to be confused with sympathy, which is something entirely different – yet, not unlike distant cousins, they are related. In my view, there’s a straightforward distinction:

Sympathy is about understanding someone’s pain or anxiety, but from your own perspective.

Empathy involves putting yourself in another’s shoes, with a genuine recognition about WHY and HOW they may be feeling a certain way; the appreciation of an emotional state without your own altering.

Think, “oh dear – poor you” in a sympathetic response; in contrast, “I can understand how that feels”, in a more empathetic reaction. Sympathy could mean sitting down next to someone in the gutter. Empathy sees your stretched-out hand, ready to get the sufferer back on his or her feet. Going on the journey with them, you could say.

Which is better? Empathy is coming out on top here, not least because it’s about an awareness of people’s true meanings, and it helps create healthier options.

No wonder, then, that relating to others in this way has taken on such a priority for leaders. On the whole (but keep reading), demonstrating empathy leads to a positive environment for happiness and effective team performance at work, not to mention all sorts of other good things, such as motivation, energy and engagement. Staff retention, even – and who wouldn’t want that.

Consider the following:

The Human Covid Issue

The pandemic (and at the time of writing we’re still not through it) has proved to be so much more than “just” a virus.

For some, it’s meant the shock and pain of traumatic loss. In my view, since the early part of 2020, Covid-19 has passed way beyond a series of health issues into a barrage of emotional stress, the likes of which we’ve never experienced before.

In previous articles, I’ve touched on how remote working has overturned the equilibrium of our working and personal lives. It’s still tipping it upside down and back again. If you manage teams, how has it been for you?

This study by Qualtrics lays bare in startling numbers the proportion of people who have experienced a sharp decline in their mental, emotional and physical health over the last two years.

Performance, turnover and productivity are key to your company’s success. Throw stress and anxiety into the mix and you’re dialling down on practically everything that your organisation has worked so hard to achieve.

Where am I going with all this?

Well, in one clear direction:

Empathy Can be Your Magic Silver Bullet

A leader who fails to empathise with the travails of their staff can almost without exception anticipate trouble ‘t mill. An employee, already isolated for much of his or her working day already has the stress volume button turned up to “loud”, even though they may not realise it.

A negative email from you with an accusatory tone, a poorly expressed phone call, a lack of understanding about juggling the demands of homeschooling with a deadline is, to be fair, not a good look. It can and does cause anxiety and unhappiness.

And that means? Reduced performance, less effective collaboration, poorer customer experiences, weaker productivity. That resignation email could be on its way into your inbox before too long.

The Empathy Advantage

The positive outcomes that empathy can bring shine a warmer, brighter light.

It’s like turning on a light switch. Or rather, it can be. Demonstrating an inbuilt sense of the world around you, and of the essential human nature of the people within your working environment could reap immense rewards.

This isn’t about feelings.

This is about understanding where the other person is, and letting them know that you have recognised what’s going on for them – whatever that may  be. Whilst you may not relate to, or even approve of a team member’s personal, family and work obligations, their situation is real. Making it clear that you’re hearing them, paying attention and authentically relating to their circumstances creates trust.

Your employee is waiting to exhale, and you’ve just given them permission to do so.

In tough times checking in, asking questions, taking cues from him or her about how much they wish to share with you empowers inspiring leaders. Remember: people remember how you made them feel, not necessarily what you’ve said to them.

News Flash

In my opinion, however, you can be a highly effective leader with no empathy at all. Does this contradict my previous points? No.

Here’s why, let me explain. Two things here:

  • Firstly, for those who specialise in corporate re-structures, mergers and acquisitions, and who need to downsize or re-allocate resources, empathy could quite literally get in the way. It may sound harsh, but making decisions based on cold, hard facts, spreadsheets and data may need to be done without the milk of human kindness for the best results.
  • Secondly, if you fake it, you can make it. Empathy, that is. Can we really, I hear you say? Doesn’t that sound rather harsh? Well yes – and yes.

The point is, your staff should believe that you care about them. Whilst empathy is almost impossible to teach and coach, there are ways to demonstrate active listening and to confirm that you are paying attention. We all need to be heard at work, and your first-base role is to listen. And, listen well.

Expressing your concerns and enquiring about any issues being experienced directly – and then paying close attention to the answer, could be as powerfully uplifting as walking from the shadows into sunshine.

In Summary

Great leaders drive positive outcomes.

Using empathy in your decision making could increase co-operation and teamwork. And after all, organisations are made up of people. Human beings with all their frailties – and amazing positive qualities, too. Perhaps, as a leader, ask yourself this:

Empathy is a part of who we are. As a leader, why would you leave that all-important part of yourself at home?

Read more posts on emotional intelligence here.

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