What is an Empathetic Leader? (Plus Tips On How To Become One)

Updated February 3, 2023

Coworkers smile while holding a conversation at one of their desks. Two other coworkers are seen in the background of the office, also having a discussion.

Empathy—the ability to relate to others—is a valuable skill in the workplace, especially if you are in a  leadership role. Managers and leaders who express empathy and show compassion help create a positive working environment where coworkers can feel valued, motivated and become more productive. Learning more about empathetic leadership may help you become a better leader. 

In this article, we discuss empathetic leaders, the importance of empathetic leadership and how you can implement empathetic leadership in your organization.

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What is an empathetic leader?

Empathy is the ability to understand and be sensitive to another person’s feelings, thoughts and actions. An empathetic leader has a genuine interest in coworkers’ lives, challenges and overall feelings. They interact with others in a way that leaves teammates feeling valued and respected for their personal and professional worth. 

Empathetic leaders have excellent communication and active listening skills and they inspire employees to improve their own communication skills. Empathy allows a leader to understand employee behaviors and individualize strategies for increasing work efficiency and productivity. It is a key element of servant leadership, a management style in which you focus on your team’s growth and well-being to put their needs first. The theory is that instead of employees serving the leader, the leader serves the employees. 

What are the characteristics of an empathetic leader?

Here are some of the common characteristics of an empathetic leader in the workplace:

  • Recognizes, predicts and understands how to meet the emotional needs of team members

  • Promotes employee unity and cultural diversity

  • Desires to understand what team members are experiencing

  • Has a genuine interest in what team members feel and say

  • Uses active listening to gain perspective and compassion

Related: 10 Principles of Servant Leadership 

Benefits of empathetic leadership

Here are some other benefits that may occur in the workplace if you use an empathetic leadership style:

1. It builds good relationships

Empathy can help you emotionally connect with team members and identify their personal interests. Good relationships may increase team members' happiness at work and their ability to adapt and communicate. Empathetic leaders can develop relationships by taking time to ask questions regarding how an employee feels and providing thoughtful responses. Remembering employee names and interests can show you care for employees, which may strengthen your bonds. 

Related: Relationship-Building Skills: Definitions and Examples

2. It promotes teamwork

Empathetic leadership incorporates a desire to assist others and work together. As you gain insight into situations and obstacles your team members may face, you're more likely to want to help them find solutions. When empathy is introduced into decision-making, it increases cooperation. Employees feel they are part of a group working as a team, supporting each other and sharing the same goals.

Related: Sympathy vs. Empathy: Definition and Importance In the Workplace

3. It supports work-life balance

When people feel their leaders were more empathetic, they are more able to navigate the demands of their work and life—successfully juggling their personal, family and work obligations. Stress levels tend to be significantly lower within an empathetic company.

4. It creates higher retention rates

Empathetic leaders recognize signs of overwork in others before potential burnout, preventing turnover.   Just taking a few minutes each week to check in with team members and gauge how they’re handling their current workload can help them recover from overwork and avoid resignations. Teams that stay together tend to have higher collaboration and fewer disruptions. It also saves the company the expense of hiring and onboarding new employees. 

5. It maximizes productivity

A team that has an empathetic leadership style is highly self-aware. Their ability to communicate and support each other allows greater insight into what they need to do as a team to its goals. An empathetic company provides a safe, trusting, and supportive atmosphere enabling its employees to focus on their duties and projects and do what they were hired for effectively and productively. 

6. It encourages innovation

When employees feel supported, they are more likely to be innovative and engaged. An empathetic leader allows others to feel like they have a voice in the team. This encourages team members to speak up, be innovative, participate, and take on new challenges. 

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How to implement empathetic leadership

Implementing an empathetic leadership style can help you create a comfortable and productive work environment for employees. Even if you're learning how to improve your empathy skills, you can effectively implement empathetic leadership by using simple strategies. Here are some tips to help you develop strategies for empathetic leadership:

Be authentic

The only way you can truly win their trust is to be authentic. Make efforts to form meaningful relationships with your people based on trust and transparency. You don’t always have to go with their suggestions, but you must demonstrate you understand where they’re coming from and provide relevant reasons why you will/won’t be actioning their feedback.

Focus your attention

Applying empathy involves being mindful, engaging in the present moment and eliminating distractions. As a leader, being present means being a source of understanding, help and support. It's also important to encourage your employees to be present so that they can feel free to talk to you about potentially sensitive topics and know that you value their well-being.

Set an example

As a leader, your job is to also promote empathetic relationships within the team. By interacting with the team members in this way, you will encourage them to do the same. You can also motivate them to do so by proposing dynamics and activities that promote team building.

Be vulnerable

Consider sharing your interests, experiences, obstacles and ideas while talking with team members. If you allow yourself to be vulnerable, you can create an opportunity to deepen your relationships with employees and build trust. They might then, feel comfortable sharing information that explains their habits and behaviors at work. You can use this information to recommend solutions to obstacles or improve their productivity.

Acknowledge success

Recognition is a great way to use empathy and ensure an employee feels appreciation and respect. You can award recognition for employee accomplishments, reaching milestones or increasing efficiency. Some ways to commend your employees may include:

  • Implementing an employee-of-the-month award

  • Scheduling a personal meeting to congratulate them on their work performance

  • Giving out a bonus for meeting monthly goals

  • Recommending them for a promotion

Use active listening skills

Active listening is a process you can use to better focus on your conversation, understand and analyze information and craft a thoughtful response. This skill may show a team member how much you care and that you value the conversation you're having. Some examples of active listening may include asking questions specific to the employee and recognizing the employee through the use of verbal affirmations to confirm you're engaged in the conversation.

Related: Empathetic listening: Definition, Examples and Tips

Understand nonverbal communication

Nonverbal communication can indicate how an employee is feeling when they don't verbalize their feelings or reasons for their feelings. You can reduce the challenge of identifying the problem by familiarizing yourself with nonverbal cues. This also can help you create an effective strategy for approaching a troubled team member and asking how you can help.

Ask questions

To build empathy, strengthen your workplace relationships and learn more about your team by asking them questions. This can help you identify obstacles an employee may need help with and reinforce open communication. The best way to understand how someone is feeling is to ask them.

Here are some specific questions you can ask an employee to practice empathy and take action:

  • How are you doing?

  • How are you managing your workload?

  • How can I help you manage your time to increase productivity?

  • Do you have any suggestions for me to assist you with your job role?

  • How can I or the organization best help you?

  • What areas in the workplace do you think need improvement to promote success?

  • Do you have any feedback for me?

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