Leading with Empathy

April 14, 2020 in
By Karin Jones

Every month at FMP we share our thoughts on the latest workplace trends and explore the effects they have on employees. Empathy is a facet of emotional intelligence and in the past few years the topic has been acknowledged as an essential leadership skill. This skill is always important but it has become increasingly important and particularly relevant for leaders as we are currently grappling with an unprecedented crisis with COVID-19. The ability to recognize, understand, and feel the emotions of other people and respond appropriately to someone else’s thoughts and feelings is crucial to relationship building. Understanding more about empathy and cultivating it as a skill can help leaders be more effective and promote employee engagement and productivity.

Types of Empathy

The term empathy was first introduced in 1909 by psychologist Edward B. Titchener as a translation of the German term “einfühlung” (meaning “feeling into”). Since that time, application of the term has moved from focusing on objects to spreading out into the fields of psychology, neuroscience, economics, and business.

According to Psychologists Daniel Goleman and Paul Ekman, there are three different types of empathy a person may experience:

  • Cognitive empathy is the ability to know how the other person feels and what they might be thinking. Sometimes called perspective taking, this kind of empathy can help in negotiations or when motivating people. A study at the University of Birmingham found that managers who are good at perspective taking were able to move workers to give their best efforts.
  • Emotional empathy (also known as affective empathy) is the ability to share the feelings of another person. Some have described it as “your pain in my heart.” Emotional empathy helps people build emotional connections with others.
  • Compassionate empathy (also known as empathic concern) goes further by moving us to act and help others however we can.

These types of empathy help us imagine what another person is experiencing, understand and share the other person’s feelings, and take action to connect with the other person. Every interaction we have with another person is a chance to see things from a different perspective, to share their feelings, and to help.

However, empathy is not about being nice or tolerant, feeling sorry for people, or giving them the benefit of the doubt. It is being able to look at the world from the perspective of another person and understand that the person’s history and point of view are as complex as your own.

Benefits of Empathy and Empathic Leadership

Empathy is essential for effective leadership. Highly empathetic people recognize the pain and suffering of others as a problem in need of a solution – the foundation of a good business model.

Empathic workplaces have stronger collaboration, less stress, and higher morale, and their employees bounce back more quickly from stressful situations. Other benefits of experiencing empathy include:

  • Building social connections with others.
  • Regulating your own emotions.
  • Promoting helping behaviors.
  • Building strong teams.
  • Eliciting employee loyalty and promoting employee engagement.
  • Modeling adaptable, agile behavior.
  • Catalyzing entrepreneurship and innovation.

When employees feel their leaders understand and respect them, they are happier, more engaged, and more productive. They are also better at building relationships with clients and colleagues.

Listening to Build Empathy

Too often, people fail to truly listen when interacting with a colleague, employee, or client. By doing so, they miss opportunities to connect. Instead, they are thinking about how they will respond, reacting quickly, multitasking (e.g., reading emails or text messages), and losing opportunities to build essential relationships.

Research shows that active listening, combined with empathy or trying to understand others’ perspectives and points of view, is the most effective form of listening. Henry Ford once said that if there is any great secret of success in life, it lies in the ability to put oneself in another person’s place and to see things from his or her point of view as well as from one’s own.

The ability and willingness to listen with empathy is often what sets a leader apart. Hearing words is not adequate; the leader truly needs to work at understanding the position and perspective of the others involved in the conversation.

Building Empathy as a Skill

No matter where you find your natural tendency, empathy, like other leadership skills, is something we can learn, cultivate, develop, and teach to others. Actions you can take to develop empathy include:

  • Practice presence. When you are present with yourself, you are better able to be present with others. Create space for a daily practice of meditation or simply sitting in silence. Even a few minutes will help.
  • Listen to employees. Making a conscious effort to engage employees and ask for their ideas and suggestions is crucial for improving emotional connection. When you truly listen, you do not jump in and offer advice or make demands. Instead, you pause and look for patterns before providing relevant feedback. Empathetic leaders stay humble and look for common ground with colleagues, employees, and customers.
  • Get to know employees. The more you get to know and understand your employees on a personal level, the more connected to them you will feel. Knowing about their families and life outside of work enables you to care about them on another level.
  • Consider other perspectives. Think about questions and issues from multiple angles before forming an opinion. Consider the feelings of others to do what is the best for the largest number of people. The ability to put yourself in the shoes of others requires being genuinely curious about where they come from. Authentically empathetic people have never met another person from whom they had nothing to learn.
  • Show you’re one of them. Collaborate with employees and experience what they experience. If you deem a task “beneath” you or a “waste of your time,” consider the message you’re sending to those doing this job. Try a colleague’s job, institute job swap days, and engage with people at all levels of the company. Doing so helps you learn about your company, your employees, and yourself.
  • Take care of yourself. There is an important link between taking care of ourselves and being available for others. Taking care of ourselves and building our own resilience shows employees you value this in both yourself as a leader and them as employees.

How we show up in hard times and easier ones, how we listen and connect, how we give and receive support, and how we care for others are skills. The courage and willingness to really see other people, and be seen by them, doesn’t get in the way of leadership – it IS leadership.

What type of empathy have you experienced? Share your thoughts with us about leading with empathy on LinkedIn!


Karin Jones is a Technical Engagement Manager and lifelong learner focusing on Change Management, Strategic Planning, and Business Transformation. With more than 20 years of experience helping both Fortune 500 and government clients through transformation, Karin brings creative problem-solving, communication, and relationship-building skills to both clients and FMP. As part of her work-life balance, Karin practices yoga, aerial yoga, pilates reformer, and meditation, and is always considering ways to bring the benefits of these to her engagements.

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