Leading with empathy

Why empathy makes sense for business leaders—and how you can develop this critical skill

Two women have a business meeting.

By Aisha K. O’Mally

Aisha O'Mally
Aisha K. O’Mally

In the scholarly world, empathy as it relates to effective leadership is a frequently recurring theme. For example, in their 2009 paper, E. Isaac Mostovicz, Nadia Kakabadse and Andrew Kakabadse emphasize the importance of empathy as a critical focal point for leaders that necessitates continuous work.

If we examine some amazing leaders in recent history—John F. Kennedy, Martin Luther King Jr., Nelson Mandela and Barack Obama, just to name a few—these individuals are often described as charismatic. But when we dig a little deeper, we see that their levels of empathy, emotional intelligence, commitment, inspirational motivation and trustworthiness were central in making them the remarkable leaders they became.

In today’s workplace, empathy, social skills and interpersonal communication are often undertrained and underdeveloped within companies, creating a trend of leadership that is void of these skills. As a result, we see higher levels of employer-employee abuse that can lead to growing employee disenfranchisement and all that comes with it.

Ultimately, though, the business world is shifting for many different reasons, including generational changes in the workplace and the recent move to remote work due to COVID-19, which has left many people feeling the pressure from home and work more intensely. Today, it is essential for managers to become inspirational leaders who motivate and support others with emotional intelligence, empathy and understanding.

What is empathy?

In its simplest form, empathy is the ability to recognize emotions in others and understand another person’s perspective on a situation. At its most developed, empathy enables you to use that recognized insight to improve someone else’s mood and support them through challenging situations.

In addition, there are three types of empathy:

  • Cognitive empathy is the ability to understand what another person might be thinking or feeling. It need not involve any emotional engagement by the observer.
  • Emotional empathy is the ability to share another person’s feelings, thus understanding that person on a deeper level.
  • Compassionate empathy is what most people usually understand by empathy: feeling someone’s pain and taking action to help.

Looking at these definitions, you might see a little clearer why it is essential for leaders to develop and hone their empathy skill set. As a general rule, people who want or need your empathy do not just need you to understand (cognitive empathy), and they certainly do not only need you to feel their pain, or worse, burst into tears alongside them (emotional empathy).

Instead, they need you to understand and recognize what they are going through, and critically, either take or help them take action to resolve the problem. Ultimately, empathy enables you to put yourself in someone else’s shoes, but without necessarily engaging with their emotion. Compassionate empathy allows for a little more rational and logical processing.

Daniel Goleman, author of the bestselling Emotional Intelligence, said it this way: “With this kind of empathy, we not only understand a person’s predicament and feel with them, but are spontaneously moved to help, if needed.”

Finding balance

The goal is to find that “sweet spot.” Cognitive empathy involves insufficient feeling and can feel too logical and uncaring by those in distress. Emotional empathy takes us back to childhood emotions, which can make us unable to cope, think and apply reason to the situation. It is difficult to help anyone else if you are overcome by your emotions or theirs.

Compassionate empathy allows us to feel another person’s pain as if it was happening to us and therefore express the appropriate level of emotion, but at the same time, remain in control of our own emotions and apply reason to the situation. As a result, we can make better decisions and provide the appropriate support when and where necessary.

Empathy can be developed

While empathy seems to be widely acknowledged as a leadership prerequisite, it is a skill that takes time to develop. Empathy doesn’t just happen overnight—it takes effort and a little wisdom that comes with age.

To develop greater empathy, work on your ability to:

  • Be open and transparent. This builds trust, a necessary component of empathy.
  • Be a good listener, because people want to be heard and understood, and that happens through active listening.
  • Lead from within. Don’t lead from the front. Encourage collaboration and make sure everyone feels heard.
  • Show genuine interest. Always take a personal interest in the duties of every individual on your team. This will help you to understand where each person is coming from and what influences their behavior.
  • Be deliberate about being empathetic.
  • Be patient with yourself. Developing empathy and emotional intelligence requires time.
  • Don’t force it; just keep learning. People can sense when you are being fake, so be conscious and practice. You will make mistakes, but you will learn from those mistakes and become a better leader—and person.

Ultimately, the world is changing—not just the business world. Our world needs empathy, and all of us need to feel cared for and supported. The first step in healing is to listen and try to better understand each other, so we can help each other. We can do this through empathy.

Aisha K. O’Mally, PhD, is a clinical assistant professor of organization and human resources in the University at Buffalo School of Management and a researcher in the school’s Center for Leadership and Organizational Effectiveness (CLOE). A business communication expert, O’Mally studies empathy in leadership, as well as health communication, including patient-provider interactions.

One Reply to “Leading with empathy”

  1. So much of this information resonates with me strongly. Coming from a physical therapy background that focuses on helping people become their best and at times against significant odds relates well to the subject of empathy. Nurturing to some degree, understanding, listening, motivating and being supportive are all personal characteristics that can enrich relationships between a patient and physical therapist. I don’t view the qualities of good leadership being much if any different than those. I feel leaders that have these qualities and a sincere interest in helping employees overcome obstacles and align with them as teammates and human beings that truly care about one another, get the most from a work environment that cultivates this atmosphere and collective thought. Definitely strikes a positive cord for me, whether in business, leadership, clinical therapeutic settings, or just in general life!
    So….Thx for that

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