Empathetic Leadership: What It Is & How To Get Started

Jimmy Burroughes
5 min readJun 7, 2021

Empathy enables you to know if the people you’re trying to reach are actually reached. Without empathy, you can’t build a team or nurture a new generation of leaders. You will not inspire followers or gain their trust. And therefore you are limiting your own results. Also called “vicarious introspection,” empathy is commonly described as the ability to put yourself in another person’s shoes. My mentor and good friend Robyn told me that,

“The key thing to remember here is to ensure you are assessing how they would feel in their shoes, not how you would feel in their shoes”.

This is the tricky part.

What is the benefit of Empathetic Leadership?

Empathy is a force of energy that enables you to see and understand the world from another’s perspective. This enables you to not only manage the business but the way people approach work. It opens your eyes to unexpected opportunities and builds relationships. According to research by Harvard Business Review, people who have empathetic leaders in their organization outperform teams with less empathetic leaders by 77%. Feeling that the actions of their leaders are aligned with their needs 68%. Feeling that they are listened to and that their contributions matter 61%. Those who feel that they are involved in key decisions In a study by Harvard Business School, groups where the boss showed warmth were 25% more likely to succeed in the marketplace than those with someone else in charge.

What does a lack of empathy look like and what to watch out for in yourself and others.

To start developing empathy, pay close attention to your own behaviour. Look for these three characteristics in the relationships you form:

  1. You may feel that you are the centre of the universe. You are unaware of what your loved ones feel or are going through. You’re not attuned to their feelings.
  2. You may often put yourself first. You may feel entitled. You may be thought of as overbearing or arrogant. You may be removed from the present situation because you are stuck in your own head and can’t really see the whole picture.
  3. You may have difficulty relating to people who are different from you. You may find it challenging to empathize with people of a different culture, religion, or race. You may feel uncomfortable because of your own sense of superiority.

These are difficult things to admit to yourself and often may people only become aware of them when they receive feedback or a 360 report. They are things every leader has to be aware of and overcome to be effective though.

So how can you deal with a low level of empathy?

Very successful business leaders are often extremely fast information processors. They don’t “suffer fools gladly,” and often derail their subordinates down because they have already considered multiple courses of action, their pros and cons and possible consequences before their subordinates come to them.

I recommend taking a moment to deploy a bit of empathy here — what’s behind a colleague’s wish to propose what immediately looks like a dumb idea? People don’t come to work to offer dumb ideas. They come to work to do their best. Notice and appreciate this. Don’t shoot them down. Instead, reaffirm them for seeing a possibility you hadn’t selected and perhaps working through a pressure testing exercise to see if it would / could work. I have been amazed in my years by the power of slow thinkers outperforming fast thinkers because they see things fast thinkers don’t and also the power of a bit of affirmation in building trust.

If you’re not sure where your team is on this journey, it may help to try and create some empathy by walking around and talking to them. Stay in the present moment and pay attention to your own body and mind as well as listening to what others are saying.

While empathy is essential, it is not easy. In the beginning, it may feel like walking on eggshells — every word you utter might be uncomfortable. You might find yourself saying something and immediately wondering “Why did I say that?”

Being without empathy is a different perspective. It’s a fact that we all have little moments that prompt us to question if we’re actually being effective as leaders or team members. One such time might have been when you had a week full of meetings and no one came to you with a concern.

Try to think about the things that your team might be struggling with or excited about and talk to them about those. See if you can help in any way.

How can we show empathy — some simple examples?

The lines between work and home are more blurred than ever — accept that people will mostly be giving more so offer support when they have personal issues. Also, remembering what they have going on at home. One project I worked on with an American company focussed on helping leaders really know what is going on for their people outside of work that they have to deal with to even make it to work — let alone do their work.

Be present. When conversing or interacting refrain from multitasking or using your phone. Being elsewhere demonstrates that you don’t think they are important to you. And this lack of empathy about how they might feel undermines trust.

Practice the “93% rule”. Dr. Albert Mehrabian from UCLA discovered that when we are discussing emotions, feelings, and attitudes, words are only 7% of the message people receive. The vast majority or the other 93% of the message is in the tone of our voice and body language. Be aware that this works both ways and they are receiving your 93% too.

Give people their time. Do not interrupt, interject, or dismiss the thoughts and opinions of others. Listen and try to actually hear what is being said, beyond the words they are using.

Why is Empathetic Leadership important to work on?

Empathy is the key to creating a culture of respect, meaning that as leaders we must model respect for each person on our team. People need to feel that they can trust their leader, and we can often find it in their eyes when they feel that we understand who they are.

Empathy also empowers individuals to take ownership of their work. One key thing I see happening in offices all over the world is a lack of collaboration between employees. People are competing for resources (resources that are usually the same thing as themselves) and therefore are focused on their work, and work, alone.

Empathy is a skill worth practising and, contrary to popular belief, is not a skill exclusive to a certain few. Empathy is actually a universal human ability. Empathy is not only good for business; it is good for people. So don’t be fooled by your analytical mind. Make time to develop your empathy skills.

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Jimmy Burroughes

Showing leaders and teams how to change their conversations to change their business performance results. jimmyburroughes.com