How to Lead with Empathy

The relationship between a leader and their employees can make or break an organization. In times where organizations face uncertainty, high-performing teams built with trust are better positioned to weather the storm. One way to garner trust among team members is to practice empathy. This requires leaders and employees to stay curious about one another’s situation and be comfortable with humility.

Key takeaways

  • Leading with empathy can improve organizational culture by building trust between managers and employees, which can lead to high productivity, creativity, and loyalty;
  • In moments of crisis, empathy will help provide confidence to team members by ensuring that their concerns are heard by the leaders they are depending on
  • Practicing empathy requires leaders to develop an understanding of another person’s situation, which requires curiosity and humility

Why lead with empathy

There are many reasons why leaders should practice empathy as part of managing their team. First, being empathetic builds stronger bonds with employees, which reportedly leads to higher productivity, more creativity, and loyalty. Trying to understand other team members’ perspectives can impact how you interact with them. It may also impact how you make decisions, leading to outcomes that are more thoughtful and inclusive. And demonstrating empathy also builds trust and goodwill with team members.

Next, the ability to manage with empathy is important in times of uncertainty. Unprecedented crises, like the COVID-19 pandemic, force leaders to make decisions with minimal to no information. Developing the skills to empathize with your team members can provide them confidence even when you do not have all the answers. This is because practicing empathy means that you have considered the teams’ greatest concerns. In times of crisis, this, along with other leadership behaviours, are imperative for maintaining calm and steering ship.

Finally, the way people work is changing in ways that require leaders be empathetic. The business world is becoming more globalized and employees regularly work in teams. Consequently, this leads to multiple opportunities for misunderstandings and internal conflict. Being empathetic enables a manager to mediate between parties and minimizes misunderstandings between valuable stakeholders. This is important in ensuring cohesive teams and retaining high performers.


Empathy as an approach

There are many ways for managers to cultivate empathy within their leadership style. To do this, managers should focus on developing their understanding of team members, staying curious, and demonstrating humility.

Develop your understanding

First, focus on developing your understanding of the person’s situation. Ask open-ended questions to learn about where the individual is at and focus on listening. These questions could include the following:

  • How does this situation make you feel?
  • What do you think about situation x?

Taking this first step ensures that you do not make assumptions on where the person is at and how a person is feeling. This is important because if you make the wrong assumption and share this with the individual, you risk alienating the person from sharing what is actually bothering them.

Far too often leaders and colleagues want to align and express empathy before they even hear what an employee has to say. This may be a result of sales strategies 101 where employees learn to manage clients by jumping the gun and showing empathy on what they assume is the issue. Doing this can be disastrous because doing so

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Be curious

Being curious is a cornerstone for empathy. Because how can you understand what a coworker or friend is going through if you do not ask?

Curiosity should not only be a practice for the sole purpose of developing empathy to resolve a conflict or misunderstanding. Instead, leaders and colleagues should strive to stay curious about one another’s lives outside of work to build stronger relationships. We spend more than half of our waking day with our coworkers and as a result, our relationships with our coworkers have an impact on our well-being. Furthermore, having friends at work is reported to improve productivity and higher job satisfaction. Being curious about your coworkers can lead to new friendships or interests to connect upon.

Demonstrate humility

As a leader, demonstrating humility may be a difficult task, because it requires acknowledging that you do not have all the answers. However, leaders who are able to demonstrate humility are in a better position to build relationships with their team members. Not only does it humanize a leader, it aligns team members to the goal by reinforcing everyone’s role on the team.

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